After being evicted, Pam and her family stay in a motel for $50 a night. Ned is fired because of the two days of work he missed while the family were being evicted. Losing a job can definitely lead to evictions, but evictions can also cause people to lose their jobs through the stressful and time-consuming nature of being forced to move. A friend offers to look after the three oldest girls for a while; Ned and Pam hold onto two-year-old Kristen, and the three of them stay on the couch of a friend of Ned’s. Meanwhile, Ned manages to get some work in a mechanic’s shop.
Ned and Pam’s story shows how much more complicated it is to endure housing instability when there are multiple children to consider. Indeed, as this passage shows, eviction can lead to families being broken up simply because they do not have adequate accommodation for all their children.
After a month with Ned’s friend, Pam and Ned realize they need to find somewhere else. Pam is due to give birth in nine days. They call about an apartment but are turned away because the landlord doesn’t want any kids in the building. The fact that Ned and Pam have children is a major factor in their ongoing homelessness. Children cause difficulties for landlords, and landlords have thus long sought to avoid tenants with children. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 did not consider families with children a protected class and thus did not forbid discrimination against them.
One might assume that landlords would be more sympathetic to families with children or that there would be adequate measures in place to ensure that children are not made homeless. However, such an assumption would, in the context of the current American housing system, be naïve. The excessive power of landlords puts children and their families at greater risk of homelessness than they would otherwise be.
In 1980, the Department of Housing and Urban Development found that only one in four rental units were available to families with children without extra charges or restrictions. In 1988 Congress banned housing discrimination against children, but that has had little effect on the way things work in reality. Today, families with children are turned away from 7 out of 10 rental units they approach. Like Ned and Pam, Arleen is also struggling to find a landlord that will take her and her boys. She has tried lying about her circumstances, but thus far it hasn’t helped.
Throughout the book there are examples of ineffective legislation designed to protect tenants from exploitative and discriminatory housing practices. The fact that so many of these measures do not have much impact in reality is telling. When legislation fights the profit motive, profit usually wins.
Eventually, Arleen has a stroke of luck in a building that seems to have been a former mental institution. It’s creepy, but clean. She is shown around by a black man named Ali who lectures Arleen about the importance of black women having committed relationships, rather than being “Ms. Independent” and neglecting family. The one-bedroom apartment costs $500. Arleen nervously asks if pets are allowed, and Ali replies that the official rule is no pets, but that he is partial to cats and thus could make an exception. Jori is so happy he begins to cry.
This is now the second person that has talked down to Arleen, judging her and giving her instructions about how to live her life. The fact that she has experienced two similar incidents like this in a row reveals the stigma and condescension she faces as a young, poor black mother.
Arleen decides to check if her cousin J.P.’s landlord has any vacant units. It will also be a chance to check on her son Boosie, who is staying at J.P.’s. Arleen’s three oldest children were taken away from her twice and raised in foster care. Boosie never wanted to come back, and when he was 17 he dropped out of school and started selling crack. Now, Boosie greets Jafaris affectionately and nods at his mother. She phones J.P.’s landlord and learns that there is a vacant unit downstairs. She is unsure, worried about the concentration of crime and drugs in the area.
Once again, Arleen must choose between several different unappealing options. While the previous apartment she saw had many positive points, it was also in a “creepy” building with an equally creepy and patronizing building manager. Meanwhile, the cost of living near her family members is being in a neighborhood with lots of drug use and crime.
After spending all day calling landlords, Pam reluctantly decides to start searching in the predominantly-Hispanic South Side. Units are cheaper there, but Pam would rather pay exorbitant rent than live in a majority nonwhite neighborhood. Ned comments that he doesn’t mind living among Mexicans as long as he doesn’t have to live with “niggers.” Pam gets uncomfortable when Ned says this kind of thing around her black daughters, but at the same time she also agrees with him. She is also desperate to remain in a white area. Yet after she and Ned have a promising conversation with a landlord in a Hispanic neighborhood, they agree living there could work.
Ned and Pam, a white couple raising both white and biracial children, complicate simplistic narratives about what racism looks like. People sometimes assume that racists do not know any people of color or are at least not in close proximity to them—yet the fact that Ned is the stepfather of two black girls does not stop him from being a virulent racist. Pam, meanwhile, is in a sense even guiltier by permitting Ned to be in proximity to her black daughters.
Ned’s friend kicks Pam and Ned out, and almost immediately afterward Pam gives birth to a baby girl. Shortly after they move into the new house in the Hispanic neighborhood, but after only three days Ned gets into a drunken fight with their upstairs neighbor and they are kicked out. Ned then finds a two-bedroom apartment in a white working-class area and pretends to be a single father, erasing the existence of Pam and her two black girls. He is approved.
The fact that Ned is approved as a single father reveals an important detail within the book’s exploration of housing discrimination against families. The discrimination families face is in fact discrimination against mothers with children, which shows how such discrimination intersects with sexism.
Sandra and Bliss are told to pretend they don’t live at the house if asked. Ned abuses the girls, taunting them with racist insults. Pam prays for forgiveness. She is certain that she can’t leave Ned yet still sometimes daydreams about taking the girls away, wondering if it would be better for them to be homeless than stay with him.
Pam feels that she is held captive by her economic (and perhaps also emotional) dependence on Ned. Yet in staying with him, she is letting down her two daughters in a way that is profoundly immoral and actually abusive.
Arleen continues to search for a place. She and the boys briefly return to their old apartment and pick up some things they’d left. Jafaris sees Little there and picks him up, but Arleen tells him to put the cat back down. She often scolds her boys for becoming too attached to anything or desiring things that are beyond their means. Her strictness is a form of protection that also harms them. They go and look at one more apartment and while there Jafaris uses the bathroom, discovering too late that the toilet doesn’t flush. The landlord yells at Arleen for having rude children.
Unlike Pam, Arleen faces further stigma and discrimination as not only the parent of children, but also a single mother. Her struggle to survive is so intense that she teaches her boys not to want or need anything in the hope of protecting them.