Desmond grew up in a poor family; he has memories of the gas sometimes being shut off during childhood. His father, a preacher, encouraged him to go to college to escape a future of struggle and deprivation. Desmond attended Arizona State University, where he first learned about American poverty in an academic setting. While he was in college, the bank seized his childhood home, which humiliated and traumatized him. He began building houses with Habitat for Humanity and, after graduating, enrolled in a PhD program at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in order to better understand the problem of poverty.
Desmond’s relationship to housing is not purely intellectual—it is also personal, based in experiences that he shares with the subjects of this book. Although Desmond’s background is different from the tenants profiled in Evicted, they share common problems that affect Americans across many different backgrounds, even as they disproportionately occur along lines of race, class, and gender.
During his PhD, Desmond learned that the two main ways of theorizing poverty were as a structural issue (beyond the control of poor people themselves) or as an individual issue (the result of poor choices and behaviors). He believes neither approach was right, and that it is vital that poor people are not studied in isolation, but rather as part of the network through which they are inherently connected to wealthier parts of society.
Throughout the book, Desmond persuasively shows that even though people like Sherenna do not think that they are responsible for the suffering and deprivation that surrounds them, they are complicit and responsible through the way in which they profit from this suffering.
Desmond moved into Tobin’s trailer park in May 2008. Although he was in one of the nicest trailers in the park, he did not have hot water the entire time he was there. It was important to live among his subjects in order for them to trust him and for him to fully understand their lives. After spending time in the trailer park Desmond moved to the North Side, where he lived until June 2009. He asked to shadow Sherenna and she enthusiastically accepted; she was “in love with her work,” proud of what she did, and keen to expose the difficulties landlords face to the world.
Sherenna’s pride in showing off her work highlights how profoundly she has been influenced by an ideology that blames poor people for their own suffering and that celebrates wealth even if it is gained at other people’s expense. Sherenna genuinely believes that there is no shame in the exploitative work of a landlord, which points to a widespread ideological problem about the issue of housing.
Some of the tenants had difficulty trusting Desmond (particularly Arleen, who maintained a suspicion he was from Child Protective Services for years). While living among the tenants, Desmond watched closely and tried to intervene as little as possible. When residents of the trailer park learned Desmond was moving to the North Side, they warned him it was too dangerous for a white person to go there. However, in actuality Desmond had a particular set of privileges as a white man in the North Side. He evaded negative impacts with the police, found it easy to secure housing, and was treated in a deferential and protective way by the residents.
Desmond’s experience on the North Side illuminates the irrational foundation of racism. The residents of the trailer park are convinced that it is dangerous for a white person to go to the North Side, but this fear is based in propaganda and illusion, not reality.
Occasionally jealous men, including Ned, would accuse their girlfriends of sleeping with Desmond. In general, Desmond did his best to avoid inflicting any harm on the people and communities he lived among. He carried a digital recorder everywhere and thus was able to recreate people’s statements word-for-word. Still, it is inevitable that the book does not represent the full and complete truth of what happened, particularly when it comes to what the people profiled thought and felt. Desmond attempted to fact-check information wherever possible.
For a long time, sociologists have debated whether it is possible not to inflict conflict on groups that a person is studying ethnographically, even if that researcher does their absolute best not to interfere with their subjects’ lives. It remains an open question about which Desmond clearly harbors ambivalent feelings.
Desmond’s encounter with the enormous suffering of Milwaukee tenants left him traumatized and depressed. He felt guilt over his role as a researcher who collected stories and then got to walk away to a life inside an elite university. And he knows that the psychic toll his research had on him is only a fraction of what is experienced by people who actually have to live the reality of poverty.
Desmond does not pretend to be an entirely impartial, unfeeling observer. Instead, he brings his own feelings into view in order to remind us that his account is inherently flawed, incomplete, and biased.
During the course of his research, Desmond realized that it was mistaken to approach any individual part of the housing system (such as a particular public housing project, for example) in isolation. The real story only became clear when bringing the entire network into view. Furthermore, he learned early on that many evictions were “informal” and never processed in court. He was shocked to discover that half of evictions fall into this category, meaning that the total number of evictions is far higher than anyone previously imagined. Through studying eviction records, he learned about the ways in which eviction disproportionately affected women, people of color, and tenants with children.
Here Desmond summarizes some of the book’s main arguments by showing how he first came to understand and develop them. By exposing this process, Desmond helps persuade those who might be skeptical about his claims that his conclusions emerged from his research, rather than, for example, preexisting ideological commitments.
Desmond concluded that it was necessary to use multiple different types of data in the book in order to truly represent the full picture of eviction, housing insecurity, and poverty. All the survey data he collected is publicly accessible through the Harvard Dataverse Network.
There has still not been enough research conducted on eviction, and the public accessibility of Desmond’s data will hopefully encourage others to pick up where he leaves off.
Milwaukee is the kind of place that is often forgotten in favor of more “iconic” cities such as New York City or San Francisco, or infamous cities like Detroit. In this sense, Milwaukee is more representative of the average American city than these more exceptional places. More research is needed to determine whether Desmond’s findings in Milwaukee apply elsewhere and how much variation there is.
The iconic cities Desmond lists are hardly free from problems, but the problems they face are more likely to be unique and difficult to apply elsewhere. Despite this, these cities—rather than “average” cities like Milwaukee—occupy disproportionate amounts of public attention.
Through most of the book, Desmond decided not to use the first person, which is an increasingly unusual choice for a work of ethnography. At times this obscures the active role Desmond played in the tenants’ lives, for example by driving them places in his car, occasionally giving them money, and both buying and receiving food. Several of the tenants gave him thoughtful gifts; Arleen once gave him cookies and a card, and Scott began sending Desmond’s eldest son $10 on his birthday while he was still homeless. It is often difficult for fieldworkers to extract themselves from the communities they study, in no small part because of the kindness and generosity of people living in even the most harrowing circumstances.
Desmond concludes by reminding us of the extraordinary kindness and generosity of the people he interviews. This emotive conclusion encourages people to remember the millions of individuals whose lives are ruined by eviction and housing insecurity. Inspired by the kindness of these individuals, we should feel compelled to take action on housing in order to create a more just world for all.