This past May, the Graduate College of Social Work (GCSW) at the University of Houston (UH) chose the book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City as a summer reading experience for all members of the college to read and discuss together at the start of the semester. Meanwhile, GCSW Dean Alan Dettlaff was preparing to launch a new lecture series – Speaking of Social Justice, the Maconda Brown O’Connor Distinguished Lecture. It seemed a natural fit to invite the author of the summer read – Matthew Desmond, professor of sociology at Princeton University – to be the inaugural speaker. Subsequently, Evicted was named the 2017 Pulitzer Prize Winner in General Nonfiction. The Pulitzer Prize Board recognized Desmond’s work as “a deeply researched exposé that showed how mass evictions after the 2008 economic crash were less a consequence than a cause of poverty.”  The GCSW and the university were honored to host Desmond for a lecture, Q&A, and book signing.

A sociologist by training, Desmond shared about the research methodology that became the basis for the book. He and his team conducted the Milwaukee Area Renters Study (MARS) in Milwaukee’s low-income private housing sector. Surveying 1,000 households in person, they achieved an 84% response rate, no small feat considering their instrument consisted of 250 questions. Desmond stressed the importance of “shoe leather” in designing the research study, research questions, and sample recruitment. They learned asking “have you ever been evicted” was artificially suppressing their results – a person with an eviction on their record may answer “no” to that question, because they define eviction differently, such as having one’s things put on the curb.

As homelessness declines nationwide, housing insecurity is rising. Desmond reported one in four Americans spend 70% of their income on rent. Desmond found that, according to court documents, 40 people are evicted every day in Milwaukee. This is on average 1 in 29 households (1 in 14 black households). However, factoring other involuntary moves that go unreported to the courts, the number is closer to 1 in 8. This is an epidemic that pervasively impacts a person’s life. When a person is evicted, they not only lose their home but they may also lose their school, belongings, community, safety, job, and health.

Desmond argues that without access to stable housing, everything else falls apart. Similar to the way the U.S. government has committed to providing economic security for the elderly and food security for the poor, Desmond proposes that we should refocus resources to provide access to housing for all Americans.

Comment from student attendee:

“I felt fortunate to hear Desmond’s presentation. He won the Pulitzer Prize not only for his quality research but his ability to tell a story with statistics. He did an extensive amount of ethnographic research, living for months with people going through evictions and learning from the landlords in both white and black neighborhoods in Milwaukee. His book details heartbreaking and unfair (but also sometimes funny and joyful) moments in the lives of numerous families. Now, he travels the country sharing what he’s learned. And, after everything he’s witnessed, and in the midst of such a divided political climate, he remains optimistic that our nation can rise to the challenge to solve this crisis.”
~ Stephanie Coates (blog post author)

Desmond’s UH presentation was polished and tailored to those in attendance. He knew he was speaking to a room of social workers, and as he concluded his remarks, he issued a call. To bring about change, Desmond recognizes many people will have to be at the table. He said the crisis of eviction and housing insecurity (explore the data for your town) demands coalitions of people invested in our communities’ public and mental health, education, criminal justice, public safety, and spiritual lives must come together. Social workers can be instrumental in answering that call. One resource for information and connection is justshelter.org, which “features links to over 600 organizations working to preserve affordable housing, prevent eviction, and reduce family homelessness, and presents stories from Americans who have faced eviction.”

Comment from student attendee:

“During his UH presentation, when Desmond said the ‘rent eats first’ and ‘home is for ourselves, every other place is for everything else,’ I knew he was not saying these lines as mere words that might elicit interest in his talk. If I had heard him speak before reading Evicted, I honestly would have thought they were quotes to add theatrics. I did not understand what is truly happening in so many cases of eviction. I attributed the cause to the person making what I would call an unknowing decision, thinking of consequences of my own past actions, not a system that creates a cycle, and often a spiral, of despair. Desmond stating eviction may be ‘inevitability not irresponsibility’ is what sticks with me. As he said, people have written the scenario about the poor, but never the why. Through the research captured in Evicted, Desmond uncovered the why.”
~ Stephanie King (blog post author)

Blog Post Authors: University of Houston MSW Students Stephanie Coates and Stephanie King (pictured above with Matthew Desmond)

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