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'Somewhere in your city, a family has just been evicted'

ASU grad, Harvard professor Matthew Desmond to share amazing work on poverty.
ASU grad spent a year living with poor people to research his book "Eviction."
April 4, 2016

ASU grad Matthew Desmond spent a year living with poor people for research on the horrors of eviction

Editor’s note: It was announced on April 10, 2017, that ASU grad and Harvard Associate Professor Matthew Desmond was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in the General Non-Fiction category for Evicted,” the book discussed below in a 2016 story. For more information on this Pulitzer Prize-winning work, visit


After paying rent, Lamar, a disabled single father of two boys, had $78 left for the rest of the month.

That’s less than $2.50 a day for heat, soap, spaghetti, snow boots, school notebooks, bus fare and everything else.

So he fell behind on the rent. And he was evicted.

Lamar and his sons were one of eight Milwaukee families that sociologist Matthew Desmond followed for a year before writing his new book, “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.”

Desmond, a graduate of Arizona State University, is an associate professor of sociology at Harvard University. In 2015, he was awarded a MacArthur “genius grant.” On Thursday, April 7, he'll discuss his book at ASU.

“Evicted” is the powerful story that Desmond uncovered while he spent a year living among poor people in Milwaukee. He spent several months in a decrepit trailer park in a poor white neighborhood and the rest of the year living in a rooming house in the mostly black North Side. He spent thousands of hoursDesmond, who used pseudonyms to protect his subjects' identities, wrote: “My identity opened some doors and closed others.” with the eight families, black and white, old and young, with kids and without. 

He found that one in four poor working families paid up to 70 percent of their monthly incomeThere is broad consensus that families should spend about 30 percent of their income on housing, Desmond writes. for rent.

“Eviction is much more an inevitability than a result of irresponsibility,” Desmond said.

Poor people — most of whom live in private housing, not public — are a lucrativeDesmond's rooming-house landlord netted about $10,000 a month in rent. “The 'hood is good,” she told him. source of income for landlords. When they evict families, it launches a series of events that can drag families even deeper into poverty. Tenants’ possessions end up in storage, which charges escalating rates with every passing month. Housing court tacks big fees onto back rent. Work days — and pay — are missed. No amount of savings can erase the debt.

Milwaukee, like many cities, has a “nuisance law,” so victims of domestic violence can be evicted if neighbors call 911 when there’s violence.

Matthew Desmond

ASU graduate Matthew Desmond spent a year living with poor families while researching his book on eviction.

In one family Desmond followed, the 14-year-old son missed 17 consecutive days of school while helping his mother find a new place to live. He attended five schools in two years.

“How do we expect him to connect with his teachers under those circumstances?” Desmond said.

"Evicted" reads like a thriller: Will Sherrena really evict Lamar, who has no legs? After making 90 calls, will Arleen and her two sons ever find an apartment?

Desmond’s year of field work allowed him to examine the issue from every conceivable angle, including from the viewpoints of the landlords. Most researchers studied poor people in isolation.

“Where were the rich people who wielded enormous influence over the lives of low-income families and their communities — who were rich precisely because they did so?” he writes in the chapter titled “About This Project.”

Sherrena, the former elementary school teacher turned property owner, “knew the value of the ghetto,” Desmond writes. She let him tag along on rent-collection day as she confronted one desperate tenant after another so he could see “what landlords have to go through.”

Sherrena is a force, literally grabbing every last dollar from one tenant while buying groceries for another.

Among the most horrific scenes in the book — and for Desmond to watch, he wrote — are when the movers arrive, usually without notice. Their work is brutal.

“This is my art,” one evictor said, pointing to a pile of belongings on a wet sidewalk.

Desmond grew up in Winslow, Arizona, a small town about 60 miles east of Flagstaff, and came to ASU intending to be a lawyer.

“I started taking classes that presented me with an image of America that confused me and troubled me,” he said. “I’ve always been troubled by poverty. I thought it was unnecessary.

“That really solidified itself in my mind while I was at ASU.”

He volunteered with Habitat for Humanity and started talking to the homeless people who hung out on Mill Avenue. He learned about ethnography, the study of people from the point of view of the subject. A student in Barrett, the Honors College, he did his thesis on homeless people.

“I started a student organization that was basically designed to connect students with homeless folks,” he said. “We visited them and sometimes brought food, but mostly we were there for swapping stories.

“The folks I met were funny and genuine and troubled. And that was something that brought me into my writing today.”

In 2002, he graduated with two degrees, in communications and justice studies.

The eviction research he did in 2008 in Milwaukee was for his doctorate dissertation at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Desmond took this photograph and the one at top during the year he followed eight families, black and white, in Milwaukee. He has kept their identities private.

As the year unfolded, Desmond knew that Lamar and Arleen and the other tenants had compelling stories. What was missing was data.

“I was confronting questions that were beyond the scope of my fieldwork, and there weren’t a lot of studies and no data that would allow me to get at those. I ended up collecting most of that data myself.”

His day-to-day life among poor people helped him create a survey of 1,100 renters, which collected dataBetween 2009 and 2011, one in eight Milwaukee renters experienced a forced move, he found. A later survey he created found that the presence of children in the household tripled a tenant’s odds of receiving an eviction judgment. on housing and eviction. He also reviewed court records, nuisance property citations, property and school records and other data.

Desmond shows the humanity of the people he lived with, both the ways they were exploited and their own ruinous decisions. Lamar is disabled because he lost his feet to frostbite while high on drugs.

“There were moments of hardship and moments of suffering and pain and moments of desperation,” Desmond said of his book. “And it has moments of brilliance and spunk and courage and humor in the face of adversity.

“The people in the book refused to be reduced to their hardships.”

As the manuscriptThe transcription of Desmond’s 18 months of interviews ran to 5,000 single-spaced printed pages. was nearing completion, he returned to Milwaukee. He wanted everyone who had accepted him into their lives to read what he wrote. In some cases, he read his book to them.

“We had long conversations, and a lot of fact-checking happened,” he said. In the end, only two minor changes were requested.

“It was amazing to me to have folks like Arleen and Crystal [a young woman who spent her life in foster care before trying to find a place to live on her own] believe in the integrity of the work, and understand why I wrote about their full selves.”

The sometimes-avaricious landlord Sherrena was laid-back about the book, he said.

“She’s very proud of her work and sees herself as a successful businesswoman,” he said.

After finishing the book, Desmond launched a website,, that lists nonprofit agencies in every state that help tenants find and keep decent housing. But he believes a voucher system is the best solution.

“The book raises the question: ‘Is housing a right?’ I say yes. Without sustainable shelter, everything else falls apart,” he said.

“We need a major investment in affordable housing. We can’t leave it to these (non-profit) organizations no matter how amazing they are. We need the answer to be from the federal government.”

The topic of eviction was personal for Desmond. When he was a student at ASU, his family’s home was lost to foreclosure. He drove up to Winslow to help his parents move.

“I remember experiencing that moment of shame and embarrassment. A lot of people who are evicted think it’s their fault,” he said.

“This book gave these people a shot at participating in the narrative of their own lives.”

Desmond will hold a public lecture and book signing at 5 p.m. Thursday, April 7, in room 174 of Coor Hall on ASU's Tempe campus.

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


Taste of Peace Corps experience brings perspective

Students explore Dominican Republic in one of ASU's new spring-break study abroad trips

April 4, 2016

For ASU senior Jack O’Brien, the words of baseball great Jackie Robinson have always been a guiding principle: “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” 

The quote by his favorite player, O’Brien said, also perfectly describes his feelings about his recent mid-semester ASU study abroad trip to the Dominican Republic.   ASU spring break global experience in the Dominican Republic Seventeen ASU students seized the opportunity to spend their spring break exploring what Peace Corps work might be like, participating in the inaugural "Taste of Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic" global intensive experience. From left, front row: Jack O'Brien, Samantha Spadaro, Brianna Celaya, Mary Flora, Elissa Latta, Meghan Scollard, Lesile Amaya, Gabrielle Blanchette, Rachel Prickett, Mary Casas, Silvia Acuna. Second row: faculty director for the trip Jessica Hirshorn, Kristin Jones, Morgan Plowman, Phylicia Grant, Chad James, Seannah Franklin, Clariece Marlowe Bayne. Download Full Image

“After returning to the States from spending a week in the Dominican Republic, the biggest thing I walked away with is perspective,” O’Brien said. “Witnessing extreme poverty, incalculable amounts of trash and waste, a serious lack of fresh water, and low standard of living made me realize what is important in humanity. Despite the harsh living environment, the people in the DR (Domincan Republic) were the most genuine, caring, passionate, helpful and overall loving people. Their sense of community involvement and ‘take the shirt off your back and give it to someone who needs it’ type of attitude changed my perspective on life.”

O’Brien is one of 17 ASU students who participated in the “Taste of Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic” global intensive experience over spring break. Organized by the College of Letters and Sciences and ASU Career Services, the program was facilitated by Discover Corps, an affiliate of the National Peace Corps Association.

Students visited active or recent Peace Corps volunteer sites, including a chocolate factory run by a women's cooperative where a business volunteer is currently serving, a site where a past volunteer implemented a stove project, and a site where a past volunteer helped build an aqueduct. Additionally, they lent their muscle to help build a school and a home — using plastic bottle-construction — and a vertical garden.

A few leisure activities were also built into the itinerary: a visit to an ecological park, a mangrove, and snorkeling. 

“The program was an excellent way for students to experience what it would be like to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer, prior to making a two-year commitment,” said College of Letters and Sciences senior lecturer Jessica Hirshorn, faculty director for the trip and a former Peace Corps volunteer in the Federated States of Micronesia. “In the end this experience was a success, solidifying for some students that they wanted to join the Peace Corps and for others that the Peace Corps may not be for them.”  

At ASU, Hirshorn has served as a past faculty director for the College of Letters and Sciences’ London and Dublin summer internship programs and, in addition to leading this inaugural Dominican Republic spring break experience, is the faculty director of ASU's new summer internship program in Beijing.

Samantha Spadaro, who graduates in May with interdisciplinary studies concentrations in sociology and communication, chose the Dominican Republic opportunity to complete her internship credits.

“I chose this program because I knew that my time and energy would be valued by the people I was helping and that it was a bone fide program,” said Spadaro.

An unexpected consequence of the trip was the enormous sense of community she experienced.

“I’m incredibly happy that ASU offered this program! I found it very interesting how humble and grateful the people that we helped were. Their warmness was to be unmatched by any experience I have had working with many non-profits in the States,” she observed. “As Americans we often find ourselves out of touch with what it truly means to have a sense of community, and that was one of my favorite parts of this trip. Not only did we get to be a part of the Dominican communities but also created our own.” 

O’Brien will also graduate in May with interdisciplinary studies concentrations in business and communications and a history minor. He is taking a job with a St. Louis-based contracting company Altman Charter. “But I’ll probably be living in San Antonio, Texas, working as a project engineer managing a commercial-grade construction project,” he explained.  

He recommends that all students aim for an experience that lets them look at life in the United States from a fresh perspective.

“As Americans we often fabricate and create our problems. We often hate instead of love,” O’Brien reflected. “I would encourage future students to invest some time in traveling to a developing country as I think it would bring about a life-changing experience to all.”

Maureen Roen

Director, Creative Services, College of Integrative Sciences and Arts