Highlighting an issue affecting millions is one thing; providing simple, effective solutions quite another. Desmond handily achieves both — and then some — in this arresting outing.
Home used to be where the heart was.
Today, mostly fear and greed remains.
But to maintain greed and fear, you need people.
People like Sherrena and Quenton. Together they own more than a few properties in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Only a few of these homes are located in nice neighborhoods. The majority – the real moneymakers for the pair – are located in the inner city. Some days, it seems easier there, for landlords and tenants alike. No credit checks for the tenants. No real maintenance necessary on the landlords properties – they can get junkies or people behind on their rent to do a lot of the work to keep their properties from collapsing – and very little judicial accountability for the more rundown of their properties.
This is not to say Sherrena and Quenton have no heart. When down on her luck tenant Arleen had nothing left to feed her children, it was Sherrena who brought her groceries so they wouldn’t go hungry. But having too soft a heart can be a liability, and well Quenton and Sherrena know it. It is for this reason that, when Arleen falls hopelessly behind on her rent, Sherrena evicts Arleen two days before Christmas.
With yet another eviction on her record and two children she must feed and find shelter for – there will be no gifts again this Christmas – Arleen begins a mad scramble to find a new place to live while trying to ignore her growing fear that she and her children will wind up on the streets.
Tobin, though…well, Tobin’s heart is a little harder than Sherrena’s. He clears $447,000 a year after taxes on the decrepit mobile home park he owns, placing him in the top 1% of income earners. The majority of his tenants belong in the bottom 10%. To be fair, Tobin can be lenient when told outright by the tenant in question why they can’t pay him their rent…but he can also be capricious and cruel with the frightened few who choose to stay hidden in the shadows, hoping they can catch up on their rent before he can evict them.
Larraine is one such shadow dweller. She doesn’t understand Tobin’s preference for straight talk and would much prefer to remain out of sight in her mobile home – at least, until she’s finally got the money for her rent. But, too often, Larraine can be her own worst enemy. Instead of saving money so she pay her rent, sometimes she buys things. Things like fancy perfumes, or, when her food stamps are finally reinstated after she missed an appointment, a lobster, shrimp, and king crab leg feast with lemon meringue pie for dessert and a big ole Pepsi to wash it all down with. Sure, Larraine spent her entire meager food stamp allotment for that one meal, but with her fibromyalgia preventing her from working, Larraine figures her lot in life is to be poor. The least she can do is buy herself a few happy memories before life hits her hard again.
Larraine is far from alone. But as tempting as it might be to believe people like her are broken, immoral, or undisciplined, she isn’t. They aren’t. The system is. And yet, there are ways – simple, cost effective ways – in which our system can be fixed, if only we’ve got the heart to implement them.
It is the only word that does this book justice.
Others have used the word heartbreaking, and at many points in the book, my heart did suffer a fracture or two at the indignities each character slogs through. Mind you, I don’t believe Desmond purposely aims to break hearts here – enlightenment of the housing situation is more his goal. He doesn’t have to stoop to a David vs. Goliath plot in order to engender false sympathy to his cause. You see, affordable housing for all isn’t just his cause – it’s our cause. Or at least, it should be.
More of our pride, sense of accomplishment, and well-being spring from having a place to call our own than we previously suspected. Desmond puts the science behind that supposition to make it indisputable fact. That he does so while painstakingly narrating the journeys of a variety of compelling characters is striking. Some are worth a couple million. One has only $28 dollars left after paying their rent every month. Another has $77. And, despite their wildly differing circumstances, Desmond carefully boosts each character up onto a pedestal.
I believe he did so that we might see them better. That we might understand.
His point in bringing each person– each flawed yet relatable human being — to our attention is a brilliant one: these are real, living people who could easily walk among any one of us. Some do walk among us. As Desmond once walked among them.
Their stories aren’t present merely as an example of strength in the face of adversity, though many represent just that. Each person – and be assured there are many more than I’ve mentioned in this review – represents the face of someone who could be our neighbor.
If only our system will let them.