I Wanted to Write to You About This Book I Read
Let’s play pretend!
However, there should be a disclaimer that the pretend play we are about to engage in, is not the fun, fantasy, imaginary world you probably conjured up and played in as a kid. This pretend play provides a glimpse of a reality that some of us have been blessed to not have to live. This form of ‘play’ outlines a real-life narrative with a real-life societal structure that pervades eviction and homelessness…and all the ills that are intertwined.
Ready?! (Remember, you had every option to stop reading at this point, and if you make the active choice to continue engagement with this blog, I hold no accountability…okay? Good.)
First, your name is Pam. Not your real name, but for all purposes of protecting the real ‘Pam,’ we are going to say your name is Pam. We are pretending, after all.
Alrighty, Pam…you’re pregnant. Seven months pregnant with your fourth daughter, to be exact.1 And Pam, you are adorable. You’re “thirty years old…with a midwestern twang and a face cut from a high school yearbook photo.”2 Your landlord decides to exploit your adorableness, and asks you to speak to reporters who keep showing up at your trailer park.
You see, the park you have been living in for the past two years with your boyfriend and three daughters, is facing the threat of being shut down and all tenants being forced to vacate the premises. Your landlord believes that you may make a “sympathetic case,” and that your cuteness and big baby bump can cover up the fact that the trailer park has had seventy code violations in the past two years, 260 police calls in the past one year, is considered a “haven for drugs, prostitution, and violence”….oh, and only recently had an “unconnected plumbing system” cause “raw sewage to bubble up and spread under ten mobile homes.”3
Alas, your adorableness may have saved the park, but it surely did not save you or your family. The court decided to let your landlord keep the trailer park, as long as he initiated a plan to “improve the park, including forcing the troublemakers out.”4 Pam, you are one of the ‘troublemakers.’
Your landlord hands you a five-day eviction notice for owing, what he accounts to be, $3000 in back rent.5 You only think you owe $1,800. So, you sign over to your landlord your $1,200 check that you just received “as part of Obama’s economic stimulus act.” It’s not enough. Your landlord keeps the check. And you and your family sell all of your valuables, preparing to be evicted.6
Pam, let’s take a hot minute to talk about where you came from. Let’s talk about your mother. You lost her when you were young. She died in a car accident when you were only in high school.7 You lost your father, too. Oh, he’s still alive! He just spent much of your youth on drugs and alcohol, and a lot of time in prison.8 Your brother? He was doing well…he was trying to overcome his heroin addiction. However, the addiction got the better of him, and his death is what tipped you over the edge.9
You, too, were doing decent right before you learned of his death. You had finally found a way to leave your abusive boyfriend, the father of your two eldest girls: Bliss and Sandra. You had Bliss when you were 23, and Sandra when you were 25. You met their drug dealing, abusive father when you were 19. Sandra still talks about the time when he hit you with a bottle, “and blood was coming out of your head.”10 If she vividly still remembers it, you sure do.
Disgusted with his drug dealings, and sick of the abuse, you were finally able to leave him by working your booty off. You got a job as “a certified nursing assistant, emptying bedpans, mopping up puke, and rotating invalids to prevent bedsores.”11 You had to fight your way out. Domestic violence calls are considered a “nuisance” call by police, and too many nuisance calls within a thirty day period could result in a fine for the landlord, and your eviction.12 With your boyfriend being a drug dealer, that made things more complicated. So you got yourself out of there by hard-earned sweat. And girl, you had hope.
Then you got the phone call. Your brother, 29 years old, died of an overdose. You snapped. You reached for something you had been able to avoid even after all those years with a drug dealer, you reached for something you knew would quickly numb the pain. And, everyday after, you were high on something.13 It kept you from crying over him. It kept that form of reality at bay. That your brother was dead.
Then you met Ned. Your current boyfriend and father of two of your girls: Kristen, and the one in your belly. He’s not happy about it, by the way. The pregnancies. Neither of them.
You found out that you were pregnant with Kristen after you and Ned reconnected when you both were released from jail (you both got caught and convicted for drug dealing). Ned demanded a paternity test. After he discovered that the baby was his, and after his daughter from another woman came to live with you and the girls, he left. He left you. You were pregnant with his daughter and taking care of three little girls…one of which was his by another woman….and he left. Close to giving birth, you had to beg the girl’s mother to take her back. She did. And Ned eventually came back…about a month later.14
Pam, life continued. Your father’s health was failing, so you and Ned looked to move closer to him. You found the trailer park, where the landlord offered you the “handyman special.” Little did you know, it was a trap. A trap that many families living in trailer parks find themselves falling into, the ‘handyman special’ is an arrangement where the tenants “owned the trailers,” and the landlord “owned the ground underneath them.” Psychologically, this is highly appealing to you. You have a desire to own a home…to have a safe haven that is yours.
You and Ned are then charged “lot rent.” The “lot rent” is equivalent to what renters of trailers paid, except, unlike the renters, you are responsible for the upkeep. This is all fine and dandy, except for the fact that your landlord knows you are trapped. Your trailer park, specifically, has a vacancy rate below 4%. Pam, your landlord knows that there are many individuals and families just waiting to take your trailer when you leave. There is a high demand for the cheapest housing possible, which, ironically, lowers the incentive for your landlord to lower your rent, actually fix the trailer to meet code…or, obviously, forgive a late payment. And your landlord knows that you will leave your trailer behind when you go. Why? Because towing expenses for a trailer often exceed $1,500 and “setting up the trailer somewhere else could cost double that.” Which means, Pam, that you will abandon your trailer, and your landlord will just fill it with the next family waiting in line.15
So, Pam, you and your girls are living in this trailer park. You have a job. Ned kinda has a job. How did you get so far behind on rent? Unfortunately, Pam, your job at the commercial printing plant was a 40 minute drive away…and your car gave out at a time Ned was not working. With no money to fix the car, you lost your job. Losing your job, you fell behind on rent. Emergency Assistance helped with the first month, and then months later in February, you gave your landlord $1,000 from your tax refund to try to offset some of your debt.16
To make things worse, you actually really, really liked your old job. Yes, it was a 40 minute drive away…yes, it was the third shift…but it was yours. You wanted to save up some money to buy a new car so that you could get your old job back. So, you withheld some of your tax refund from your landlord…only to buy a car which only lasted you a week before it, too, conked out and ate dirt.17
Eviction is now the irreversible option, and you are currently walking across a row of trailer homes. You head straight to a trailer where you know the inhabitants, and trust them around the girls. You ask if you and your family can stay there until you and Ned can find a new place. The inhabitants, Scott and Teddy, say ‘yes.’ For a brief moment, you can breath.18
The reprieve does not last long. The landlord, upset with Scott and Teddy for opening their door to you and your family, signs their eviction notice as well. He just also happens to tack on your debt to Scott and Teddy’s in the process.19
Desperate, you and Ned check into a cheap hotel. You call churches. You call family. You call friends. No one can help.
Ned loses his job for missing work the two days it took to move you and the kids.
You see the heightening instability, the spiral, and ask a friend to look after Bliss and Sandra until you and Ned can get back on your feet. You keep two year old Kristen with you.20
Travis, a friend, finally agrees to take you, Ned, and Kristen in for a while. But the situation is volatile, and Travis frequently gets annoyed with having your toddler around. He’s not the only one with a short patience for children.
It seems as if…
…you call, does not accept children. Some landlords claimed that kids are too loud and cause too many disturbances. Children sometimes go hand-in-hand with Child Protective Services, who don’t take too kindly to well-known code violations on the landlord’s property. For landlords afraid of fines, no children = less problems. One landlord said that “it was against the law for him to put so many children in a two-bedroom apartment”….which was unfortunate, because that is all you can afford.
You start “subtracting children” from your family when you talk to landlords, in a desperate hope that someone will accept you, and unknowingly, your large family.21
You call thirty-eight apartments. Some, in the frenzy for a home, you mistakenly call twice. But after the haul, you have hope! Pam, of your thirty-eight calls, you finally have two appointments with landlords to check out apartments. Being ready to give birth to your fourth daughter any day now, you are praying for a home.22
The first apartment costs $640 with heat. As you and Ned wait outside the apartment complex for the landlord to arrive, Ned demands for you to keep your “mouth shut and let him do the talking.” And Ned sure does a lot of talking. When the landlord asks for you and Ned to fill out an application, Ned offers cash.
Unfortunately, cash was not going to cut it…you need to fill out the form, Pam. Filling out the form means the landlord will know about you and Ned’s criminal records, as well as your latest eviction. With that realization, you watch your first hope for home dissipate…
Ned asks: “Is it hard to get in?”
Landlord: “We do a credit check and stuff.”
Ned: “Well, our credit ain’t the greatest.”
Landlord: “That’s okay as long as you don’t have any con-victions or e-victions.”23
The second apartment is in a mostly Hispanic neighborhood. Oh! Pam, I forgot to mention…you’re white. You are not crazy about being in a diverse neighborhood, but this apartment is a three-bedroom for $630…it is gorgeous…and you are pregnant and desperate. So you’ll take it if the landlord gives it to you.
He does. He calls you a couple days after you finally give birth to your fourth daughter. Which is perfect, ‘cause Travis kicked you and Ned out shortly before you went into labor. Honestly though, the landlord only accepted you and Ned because the two of you are white. A very key element to your identity which I forgot to mention to you at the beginning of this pretend play session…your whiteness is what gets you and your family into certain areas, and it is also what keeps other people out.
I mean, really, Pam…think about it. Your new landlord didn’t even make you fill out credit references or name your bank. You are a convicted felon, receive welfare, and have two evictions. Ned…well, he is even more of a mess. Beyond the fact that he is currently on the run from the cops, he also has no proof of income. And between the two of you, you have five daughters. Yet, you still managed to get into an area of town where people in the ghetto “dreamed of moving to.”24
But the dream really doesn’t last long….in less than a week Ned gets into a drunken fight with a neighbor, resulting in you and him and the three girls and newborn baby having one week to find a new place.25
Ned comes through and finds a two-bedroom apartment for $645. However, he only managed to get accepted by not telling the landlord about you, Bliss, or Sandra.
Ned’s not worried about you keeping your mouth shut in order to avoid eviction, but he is worried about your two daughters, Bliss and Sandra. He told them both to never tell the landlord that they live there. This is not the first time Ned has singled out your two oldest girls. Ned has a tendency to be abusive and degrading towards them. Their father was black, and Ned liked to tell them that “their curly black hair looked ugly,” and that they were “just “as stupid as [their] father.” He even went to the extent to have them march around the house one day chanting, “White Power!”26
Pam, he disgusts you. When you were first evicted from the trailer park, you originally were hoping to find a place under $500 in rent…just in case you were ever able to break it off with Ned.27
You now see that will never be the case. How are you supposed to take care of Bliss, Sandra, Kristen, and your new baby and afford over $600 in rent on your own? What landlord is going to accept you and all of your kids?
You pray that Ned’s abuse won’t “hurt the girls in the long run.” You pray “for forgiveness, for being a failure of a mother.” The best you feel you can do, is tell your girls that Ned really is “the devil.” You sometimes wonder if you should take them and flee to a homeless shelter…where at least you will be together and maybe build something positive.
“Evicted,” by Matthew Desmond
Here, Pam, is where your story ends. Not much else is known about you…we can hope that you eventually left Ned…that you found a decent job…got a decent place to live…are somehow raising your four girls all on your own. But we really don’t know.
And now that you are no longer ‘Pam,’ and back to being whoever you are reading this blog, you probably will end up forgetting about her. You will continue with your life. Your own struggles. What becomes of Pam is no longer of any critical importance, because she is no longer you. Her daughters are not your daughters. You have your own burdens to carry, you don’t need Pam’s as well.
Pam is just one of many real people in Matthew Desmond’s book, Evicted. Desmond is an ethnographer of poverty. He spent about a year living in high poverty areas, which simultaneously also had high eviction rates. Living for four months in a trailer park, and then for about nine months in the ghetto, he recorded all that he saw and heard. He developed honest relationships with the families living there, and journaled in incredible detail the individual struggles they faced. His initiative documented how eviction leads to homelessness, poverty, addiction, abuse and total disinvestments in one’s community and one’s own future. His book shows a glimpse at structures that are in place in our society which keep people in these cycles of loss and helplessness.
The book is heart wrenching. And my mother gave it to me as a form of enlightenment. She knows that one of William and I’s eventual goals with Sustaining Tree is to partner with nonprofits to provide affordable, sustainable, passive homes to individuals and families stuck in cycles of homelessness, abuse, and poverty. But we both have very limited work experience in such nonprofit ventures.
One of the reasons I chose Pam’s story is because she lived in a mobile home for two years before she was evicted. Growing up and living in our rural area, William and I continue to witness trailer parks as places were high poverty rates seemingly lie.
Thereby, William and I want our homes to have the option to be mobile. We want them to be small, not tiny…so that Pam could comfortably raise all four of her girls in a modest, healthy, home. And, what if Pam didn’t have to spend over $1,500 to move her home if she got behind on rent? Pam and Ned obviously still need some help with things…drug abuse included…so how do you get decent living for people who are addicted, suffer trauma, have mental health problems, and have lots of children? Their children, even if outside intervention occurs, are no doubt going to be affected by the choices of Pam and Ned. They too, may find themselves stuck in the same cycles of poverty, addiction, abuse, and homelessness as their parents. Someone, somewhere, somehow, needs to break the cycle. Can it really just start with a good, dependable home?
This book has shown me that the lack of a shelter, a dependable roof over one’s head, of a healthy space to grow and live, is the detrimental cause of an individual’s downward spiral, a family’s instability, and a whole community’s dilapidation.
But, how can sustainable homes and lifestyles help? How can passive homes help? How can net zero homes help? If sustainability really is only for the rich, for those with a hope, an investment, in the future…what good are we really doing?
That’s all for now.
Thank you for playing pretend with me. I can’t say that I won’t encourage you to read a blog like this again.
Stay safe, healthy, and thankful,
P.S. If I know you personally, and you want to borrow my note-ridden copy, I will gladly share!
1. Desmond, Matthew. Evicted, Penguin Random House, LLC, New York, 2016. Pages 47-48.
2. Desmond, Evicted, Page 46.
3. Desmond, Evicted, Pages 36, 46.
4. Desmond, Evicted, Page 45.
5. Desmond, Evicted, Page 46.
6. Desmond, Evicted, Pages 46, 50-51.
7. Desmond, Evicted, Page 48.
8. Desmond, Evicted, Page 48.
9. Desmond, Evicted, Page 48.
10. Desmond, Evicted, Pages 47-48.
11. Desmond, Evicted, Page 48.
12. Desmond, Evicted, Pages 188-192.
13. Desmond, Evicted, Page 49.
14. Desmond, Evicted, Pages 49-51.
15. Desmond, Evicted, Pages 45-46.
16. Desmond, Evicted, Pages 50-51.
17. Desmond, Evicted, Pages 50-51.
18. Desmond, Evicted, Pages 50-51.
19. Desmond, Evicted, Page 52.
20. Desmond, Evicted, Page 227.
21. Desmond, Evicted, Pages 228-230.
22. Desmond, Evicted, Page 236.
23. Desmond, Evicted, Pages 236-237.
24. Desmond, Evicted, Pages 237-238.
25. Desmond, Evicted, Pages 238-239.
26. Desmond, Evicted, Pages 237-239.
27. Desmond, Evicted, Page 236.
© 2020 Sustaining Tree
© 2020 Sustaining Tree