Larraine wakes up early as usual. Her trailer is pristinely neat and tidy with matching interiors. She knows that there are two options for people facing eviction in Milwaukee: Emergency Assistance, which was meant to help people avoid homelessness but was only an option of if one had dependent children, and the Homelessness Prevention Program, which is offered through Community Advocates. The program is designed more for people who face sudden problems, rather than those chronically unable to pay rent. Larraine calls the number, which she knows from memory, and is immediately turned away.
It is, of course, important that resources exist for people who experience a sudden, unexpected change in circumstances. Yet for most poor people, homelessness is a constant threat—not one that comes in a single, emergency moment. The fact that only those who face an unexpected crisis can receive assistance speaks to the stigmatization of chronic poverty.
The movers’ trucks have witty slogans like “Service with a Grunt” or “Order Some Carryout.” One service is run by three brothers, Tom, Dave, and Jim Brittain. Almost half of their business is evictions, which are paid for by landlords. Sometimes the families are there when the movers show up, sometimes they aren’t at home, and sometimes they have already moved out. Tenants often seems shocked when the movers show up. Living in poverty and precarity can make it difficult to plan for the future.
When eviction comes as a shock (as it often does), the whole experience becomes even more traumatizing. When people feel that they could be unexpectedly evicted from their homes at any time, this creates an undercurrent of stress that affects the whole rest of a person’s life.
The movers pull up at a neat, elegant house where the television is still on. The young black men who live there insist that they have paid the rent, which is true, but the house is still being foreclosed. The sheriff deputies inform the sheriff that it is a drug house, and they go ahead with the eviction.
Failure to pay rent is not the only reason that people are evicted. Indeed, as the book has shown, landlords can evict tenants for any reason (or none at all).
Larraine grew up in a public housing complex in South Milwaukee. Her mother was physically disabled and her father was a window washer. She has fond memories of childhood, when she didn’t realize that her family were poor. After dropping out of school, she worked as a seamstress and then a machinist. She got married at 22, quit her job and had children. She and her husband divorced eight years later and she began dancing on tables, a job she enjoyed, while raising her kids as a single mother.
Larraine’s childhood represents a type of working-class existence that is not otherwise represented in the book. While Larraine grew up poor, she didn’t realize this at the time, suggesting that her family’s low income did not negatively impact her life in a serious way. Unlike the other characters in the book (and Larraine now), they were poor but stable.
Larraine and her next husband, Glen, had a “consuming, brutal kind of love.” Glen was an alcoholic and drug user who spent time in and out of prison, and they would have frequent fights in which Larraine sometimes was violent with him. Once, Glen came home high and beaten up. He reached for a bottle of prescription pills and Larraine grabbed them, worried he was going to take all of them. In the scuffle, Glen slipped and badly injured his head. Larraine called 911, and after Glen’s injury was treated he was arrested for violating his parole by taking drugs. He died of an overdose after being sent back to prison, and Larraine says that ever since, “it’s like my whole life fell into a hole.”
Glen brought chaos and instability to Larraine’s life. At the same time, her love for him also gave her a sense of purpose and meaning. And regardless of the negative side of Glen’s impact on her life, the tragic circumstances of his death create a profound trauma that colors the whole rest of Larraine’s life. Having lost her husband in such a horrific manner, she loses any hope that her life will get better in the future.
The movers often evict people they know personally; Tom has evicted his own daughter. One day they pull up to a house where a mother died of an overdose and her children carried on living by themselves for months after. The previous week, a man had shot himself in the house after the moving truck showed up. Yet the movers are most traumatized by the “squalor” they encounter, which is difficult to forget.
This passage explores the sometimes surprising way in which trauma works. One would assume that the man shooting himself would likely be the most traumatic thing the movers encounter—yet instead it is the far more ordinary, pervasive examples of misery and deprivation.
Of Larraine’s four siblings, only her youngest brother, Ruben, owns his own home. She knows it is not an option to ask him for money. Instead, she goes to the Arby’s branch where her youngest daughter Jayme works. Jayme is nervous and embarrassed about her mother being there, reminding Larraine that she is not allowed to visit. When Larraine explains about her 24 hour eviction notice, Jayme replies that she can’t lend her any money now, but will send her money once she gets her paycheck. Larraine’s other daughter Megan no longer speaks to her mother after Larraine borrowed money and failed to pay it back.
This passage reveals the depth of Larraine’s desperation. Larraine likely does not want to turn to Jayme for help, particularly after her other daughter, Megan, stopped speaking to her over borrowing money. It is demoralizing and humiliating for a parent to have to turn to her children in this way—yet Larraine has no other choice.
Before 2008, African American and Hispanic families were especially targeted by the subprime lending industry, and lost far more wealth (31% and 44%) than the average white family (11%) between 2007 and 2011. At church, Larraine’s pastor, Pastor Daryl, preaches about the problem of people only following Christianity halfway. Daryl strongly believes that it is the church’s duty to look after those in poverty. He has given Larraine money before, but this time when she asks, he says he can’t help.
Pastor Daryl’s determination to support the poor reflects a commitment to the Christian principles of promoting equality and helping those in need. Yet Pastor Daryl likely has other impoverished members of his congregation and limited resources—he perhaps cannot be blamed for refusing Larraine on this occasion.
A young woman walks into the office of the trailer park and promises to pay her overdue rent. Sometimes tenants are able to persuade their landlord that they will pay, sometimes they aren’t. Many tenants deal with overdue rent and the threat of eviction by ignoring their landlords, as Larraine is doing now. Men tend to be more confrontational, which leads to more success in negotiations. Men are also generally more able to offer handiwork in exchange for rent reductions. Women, who tend to be more occupied with care work in addition to wage labor, do not have time to make such offers. Some women instead trade sex for rent.
There are multiple ways in which women face extra difficulty and discrimination in housing. Women face economic discrimination, are disproportionately burdened with care work, are socialized into being more accommodating, and are often not perceived as strong or skilled enough to perform manual labor.
Finally, Ruben reluctantly agrees to pay Larraine’s rent, coming to the trailer park to give Tobin the money himself. However, Tobin refuses to take it. The sheriffs show up within a few hours, and Larraine asks the movers to put her things in storage. She will now have to find a way to pay for the storage, or else her belongings will be confiscated, never to be seen again. Once the movers have finished, Larraine gathers her last remaining items and moves into her brother Beaker’s trailer. Beaker is in the hospital, so can’t refuse her. She screams into the couch and punches the cushions in anguish.
Tobin’s refusal to take Ruben’s money highlights the disturbing extent of landlords’ power, which enables them to make decisions based on their own whim rather than on justice or even consistent rules. Larraine’s right to housing is so flimsy that it can be taken away even if she pays her rent in full. Notice also the domino effect of housing issues: Larraine’s eviction means that her hospitalized brother will come back to a cramped home.