Arleen is happy in her new home, despite the group of crack addicts who have recently moved in next door. She repaints the apartment and admires her own handiwork. Jori and Jafaris befriend the neighborhood boys. Arleen likes that the unit above hers is empty, and she sometimes goes there after the boys are in bed, enjoying having space to herself. A friend gives Arleen a cat, which Sherenna allows her to keep. The family call it Little; the boys love when Little catches mice.
Again, Arleen’s life seems to have taken a positive turn ever since she moved into this new apartment. Yet while everything appears to be going well on the surface, Arleen’s good fortune does not seem likely to last—particularly given how we know Sherenna treats her other tenants.
One day, Jafaris has a pretty bad asthma attack and Jori takes him home from school, where Arleen is waiting. Although Jafaris’ asthma has been improving, Arleen worries about him. He has been struggling with some subjects in school, and one of his teachers suggested medication. Arleen believes Jafaris needs “one-on-one attention,” not pills. Jafaris’ father was violent with Arleen, and soon after the two stopped seeing each other he went to prison. Arleen’s father had also left her mother, who was only 16 when she had her. At 17, Arleen dropped out of school.
This passage illustrates the way in which social problems occur in a cyclical manner, with the difficulties of one generation occurring again—albeit perhaps in different forms—in the generation below. Furthermore, Jafaris’ teacher’s recommendation of psychiatric medication shows that poor children, and especially poor black children, are ill-served by the authorities.
Around the same time, Arleen met a man who was constantly in and out of jail. She got pregnant and had a son nicknamed Ger-Ger. Shortly after she started dating another man, Larry. She and Larry had four children together, two daughters and two sons, the youngest of whom they named Jori. Larry asked Arleen to marry him but Arleen was unsure, anxious about Larry’s judgmental mother and sister. Not long after, Larry started seeing other women, including one of Arleen’s best friends. He walked out on them, but he still comes by to see Jori and talk with Arleen about their son.
Like many women in the book, Arleen’s life is filled with men who are highly unreliable. While Larry is at least more somewhat present in Jori’s life, Arleen ultimately has responsibility for raising all her children. This puts extra pressure on her housing situation, as not only must she financially support her kids, but she must also ensure that they have a safe home in which to live.
Since Larry left, Arleen has sometimes worked, but has often had to rely on welfare. As a result of her chronic depression she receives W-2T, which amounts to $7,536. Since the mid 1990s, rent prices have skyrocketed but welfare stipends in most parts of the US have remained the same. If Arleen was the recipient of public housing or a housing voucher, she would have spent only 30% of her income on rent, which would have meant “the difference between stable poverty and grinding poverty.”
This passage introduces another of the central ideas in the book: regardless of the choices poor people make, the high cost of rent means that they are essentially doomed to remain impoverished and constantly on the brink of homelessness. Every other economic decision Arleen makes becomes irrelevant in light of the cost of rent.
Arleen had rented a subsidized apartment for a period when she was 19, just after having Ger-Ger. Shortly after, a friend asked her to move in, and Arleen left public housing for the private rental market, a decision she regrets to this day. She wishes she still lived in that same subsidized apartment, which cost her $137 a month. The waiting list for public housing is frozen in Milwaukee, as it is in most American cities. In some places, it would take many decades before an applicant would be considered for public housing. On average, ¾ of American families who qualify for housing assistance do not receive it.
This passage emphasizes that the American housing system is profoundly broken. As a result of a choice Arleen made when she was only 19, she has been doomed to a lifetime of poverty. Despite the fact that she is eligible to receive government housing assistance, Arleen is stuck having to pay exorbitant rents that consume almost her entire paycheck.
Before long, a woman named Trisha moves into the empty unit above Arleen’s apartment. Arleen and Trisha get along well. Trisha has a history of homelessness, sex work, and drug use. Now, she buys loose cigarettes for her and Arleen to smoke together and she watches Jori and Jafaris when Arleen is busy with errands. When a moving van comes to confiscate the furniture in Arleen’s apartment, Trisha backs up Arleen’s lie that Sherenna had already taken it. Trisha invents an elaborate backstory about her friendship with Arleen, and it is unclear to what extent Trisha believes it to be true.
Arleen’s relationship with Trisha brings a degree of comfort and ease to her unstable and difficult situation. Yet the fact that Arleen and Trisha are brought together by mutual chaotic circumstances means that the support they can provide for one another is limited. Both women are in highly precarious, vulnerable situations, and ultimately need more support than the other is capable of providing.
Trisha arrived in Sherenna’s building via Belinda Hall, a black woman who runs a business managing the finances of SSI beneficiaries. Sherenna likes working with social service agencies because they provide extra security with potentially risky tenants. Sherenna had even promised to empty all her properties if Belinda wanted to fill them with her clients. Belinda charges her 230 clients $37 a month for her services. Through working with Sherenna, her number of clients continues to grow.
It is often difficult to tell whether the people in the book who make their living through poor communities are exploitative or not. Overall, the book suggests that the answer may not be a straightforward yes or no. Individuals like Sherenna and Trisha may help the poor people they serve in some ways, while also exploiting them at the same time.
Sherenna calls Arleen and reminds her that she owes her $320 for her sister’s funeral in addition to this month’s rent. Despite her current financial hardship, Arleen does not regret borrowing the money from Sherenna. Initially Sherenna took pity on Arleen, but now that it was becoming clear that Arleen would be unable to pay her back she felt differently. After forgetting to attend a meeting with her welfare caseworker, she received a reduced welfare check.
Sherenna has a habit of initially feeling sympathy for her tenants, before eventually changing her mind (usually when their debts to her take time to be paid). This conditional and short-lived form of sympathy thus ends up being more predatory and cruel than helpful.