Written by Connie Larkman
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Matthew Desmond, winner of numerous awards for his book which chronicles the lives of several families in the poorest neighborhoods in Milwaukee, will be the keynote speaker at the the United Church of Christ General Synod 32 in June. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, a New York Times Bestseller, will also be the subject of the denomination’s 2019 All Church Read.
Evicted, based on years of embedded fieldwork and data, points to eviction as a root cause of poverty. Desmond’s keynote address will take place in the same city as his book, on Saturday, June 22 at the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee. UCC congregations throughout the country are encouraged to organize book discussion groups around Evicted in ways and at times that best suit them and participate in the All Church Read. Everyone is invited to register to attend General Synod to hear Matthew Desmond’s keynote or tune in to the live stream and listen to his address as a group or on your own.
“It’s a deep honor that Evicted was chosen for the UCC All Church Read,” Desmond said. “Without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.”
His book introduces readers to eight families struggling to make ends meet. Arleen is a single mother trying to raise her two sons on the $20 a month she has left after paying for their rundown apartment. Scott is a nurse consumed by a heroin addiction. Lamar, a man with no legs and a neighborhood full of boys to look after, tries to work his way out of debt. Vanetta participates in a botched stickup after her hours are cut. All are spending almost everything they have on shelter, and all have fallen behind.
The fates of these families are in the hands of two landlords: Sherrena Tarver, a former schoolteacher turned inner-city entrepreneur, and Tobin Charney, who runs one of the worst trailer parks in Milwaukee. While they are fond of some of their tenants, as Tarver puts it, “Love don’t pay the bills.” She moves to evict Arleen and her boys a few days before Christmas.
“The UCC has led on issues of homelessness and hunger,” said Desmond, “and now I think we’re at a time when we ask ourselves what we can about families that are facing exorbitantly high rents and evictions.”
Desmond, the Maurice P. During Professor of Sociology at Princeton University, focuses his teaching and research on poverty in America, city life, housing insecurity, public policy, racial inequality and ethnography. In 2018, he received the Stowe Prize for Writing to Advance Social Justice, awarded by the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center to authors whose work shines a light on critical social issues.
“Welcoming Matthew Desmond to Synod will provide us a meaningful opportunity to engage with his work on poverty in America,” said the Rev. John Dorhauer, UCC General Minister and President. “Let’s join together as a denomination in an All Church Read of Evicted. The Rev. Velda Love, UCC minster for Racial Justice will host a group discussion of the book both online and in-person on May 16 at 1:00 p.m.”*
Last year, Desmond’s Eviction Lab at Princeton University published the first-ever dataset of millions of evictions in America, going back to 2000. He and his team launched the Eviction Lab in 2017. They collect national data on eviction to help answer fundamental questions about residential instability, forced moves and poverty in America. Desmond and his team believe that stable, affordable housing can be an effective platform to promote economic mobility, health and community vitality. They hope their findings will inform programs to prevent eviction and family homelessness, raise awareness of the centrality of housing insecurity in the lives of low-income families and deepen our understanding of the fundamental drivers of poverty in America.
Using the Faith-based Reading Group Guide [available here as a PDF], UCC churches can delve into these issues through book discussion groups. The guide prompts readers to consider questions like this, “Faith-based organizations have traditionally had a special responsibility to help the poor. For some people, the less fortunate can offer a unique opportunity to demonstrate the power of their beliefs. Do you believe that your organization can provide support—whether financially, spiritually or socially—to those facing eviction in your community?”