Matthew Desmond

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Evicted: Chapter 16 Summary & Analysis

In February tenants receive tax credits and Sherenna’s income surges. Doreen has managed to clear her debt, but Lamar hasn’t, and is still set to be evicted. On Wednesday night Sherenna and Quentin go to the casino. Sherenna loves gambling and stays at the casino until 3 or 4am. Meanwhile, Lamar, Kamala, and the boys are playing spades at Lamar’s house. Sherenna has been ignoring Lamar’s requests to fix the increasing number of issues in his apartment. He has been trying to find a new place with little success. While Quentin and Sherenna are still at the casino, they get a call. Kamala’s apartment is on fire.  
The image of Sherenna and Quentin’s night at the casino being interrupted by the apartment fire is so symbolically meaningful that if this were a work of fiction it would likely seem heavy-handed. Sherenna’s reckless desire for wealth and relative economic privilege is symbolized by her love of gambling. Meanwhile, the fire in Kamala’s apartment represents the crisis of poverty and housing insecurity.
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Quentin and Sherenna arrive at Kamala’s building to a chaotic sight. Groups of people are huddled around, some crying. Kamala is screaming, her hair burnt off one on side. Her eight-month-old baby has been killed in the fire. Sherenna whispers that she hopes Kamala didn’t leave the baby alone in the apartment. She has known Kamala since she was her fourth-grade teacher, before she became a landlord. Quentin and Sherenna figure out that Kamala and her boyfriend Devon had been downstairs playing spades at Lamar’s, and had possibly left something on that set their apartment on fire. Sherenna struggles to remember if she installed smoke detectors in every room of Kamala’s apartment.
The devastating death of Kamala’s baby is not necessarily a direct result of housing instability (after all, the cause of the fire has not yet been specified). Yet the circumstances surrounding the fire highlights\ several key problems with housing. Sherenna’s uncertainty about the smoke detectors betrays carelessness. At the same time, if Kamala had more resources and a greater sense of ownership of the apartment, she would have been more likely to install detectors herself.
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The next day, the fire inspector tells Sherenna that Kamala’s father was supposed to be watching her girls, but likely left them alone. One of the girls knocked over a lamp while climbing out of bed, setting the room on fire. Kamala’s oldest daughters escaped of their own accord, but—despite Kamala and Luke’s efforts—the baby could not be saved. The inspector assures Sherenna that she isn’t responsible for any of it. Sherenna asks if she has to return Kamala and Lamar’s rent and, to Sherenna’s relief, the inspector says no. Sherenna says that the silver lining of the situation is that she “may get a huge chunk of money.” In addition, she will finally be rid of Lamar. 
Sherenna’s reaction to the fire is one of the starkest moments of cruelty and greediness in the book. Without pausing to mourn Kamala’s baby’s death (or at least to respect those who are mourning), Sherenna immediately checks whether she will have to pay back Kamala and Lamar’s rent. She doesn’t seem to consider giving Kamala the rent as an act of kindness, and seems almost happy about the fire once she learns that it will personally benefit her. 
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