Matthew Desmond, author of Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, visited this past Tuesday, November 1st, giving eager students, faculty, and community members an informative and engaging presentation.
The much anticipated keynote event for UW’s 2016 Go Big Read program had motivated people to claim their spot in line as much as two hours before doors opened.Ready with tickets in hand, guests quickly congregated in the entrance, main hall, and lobby of Memorial Union, waiting for the doors of Shannon Hall to open. Others also awaited at several livestream locations across campus and the Madison area, eager to hear the UW alum speak, and, still more, enthusiastically awaited the start of the livestream feed from the comfort of their own home, with laptops in hand.
The crowd was excited when UW Chancellor Becky Blank took the stage to introduce Desmond. She noted on the broad reach of the program, with over 225 participating classes, and the overwhelming response the text has received. As she shared, “Matt shows the devastating consequences of eviction” and she warmly welcomed him onto the stage. Desmond himself took to the podium, with clicker and slides ready, to share his experiences and research with the crowd.
Desmond framed his lecture with the story of one of the eight families he worked with while in Milwaukee, the story of single-mother Arleene and her two sons, Jori and Jafaris. Coupled with compelling images and revealing statistics, he explained that Arleene is not alone with her housing struggles. Like many other low income families, she spends at least 80% of her income on rent, leaving her and her children with little to none for other living necessities like food and clothes.
Desmond emphasized how eviction affects the young and the old, the sick and the able-bodied alike. Recounting how Jafaris got mad and violent with a teacher at school, prompting a police visit to their home that nearly ensured her an eviction, Desmond highlighted the wide grasp eviction has on all parts of life.
While on stage, the author also touched on the long term consequences of eviction. Given that all evictions are recorded and publicly visible on the Wisconsin Court public records database, finding a home thereafter is nearly impossible. Arleene herself called nearly ninety apartments before one finally accepted her application. The link between mental health and housing stability was discussed, too. Desmond alerted the crowd to the increased rate of depression among mothers following an eviction, and the rising rate of suicides.
The author stressed throughout his presentation that one’s home is the center of life, a refuge from work, school, and the menace of the streets. It’s where we play and retreat; it’s where we settle down. The word for home in different languages evokes warmth, family, and community. Eviction, he asserted, can cause the loss of all of this.
The issues discussed were heavy and disheartening – what can be done to change the crisis? Desmond closed his talk with a call to action, with hope for the future of the housing landscape. What if all families had housing? Kids could be fed, kept off the street and in their schools; parents could better maintain a stable job and healthy environment for their children.
He directed the audience to his organization Just Shelter, where all may stay informed and get involved with organizations working to fight this problem. He encouraged students to get involved with organizations on-campus, such as Habitat for Humanity, or those off campus, such as Wisconsin Partnership for Housing Project and Fair Housing Center of Greater Madison. His hope that as years pass, we come to hate poverty, eviction, and homelessness more and more and for all of us – students, faculty, and community members alike – to participate, continue discussion, and actively work to correct this issue that directly affects the very communities we live in.
Intern, UW-Madison Libraries & Go Big Read Program
(Cover photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison)