Without Stable Shelter, Everything Else Falls Apart

Without Stable Shelter, Everything Else Falls Apart

“Without stable shelter, everything else falls apart,” writes Matthew Desmond in his book Evicted. Throughout the book Desmond shows how eviction, and sometimes just the threat of eviction, has the power to ruin people’s lives. People who are living in poverty and just barely holding on can be pushed over the edge by an eviction, and can find it impossible to get their lives back on track. Far from being a consequence of poor decision-making and poverty, eviction can often drive people to make poor decisions, cause people to lose jobs, and can drive people into grinding and inescapable poverty.
“The pursuit of happiness undeniable includes the pursuit of material well-being,” Desmond writes, “minimally, being able to secure basic necessities.” People who have faced eviction don’t have the ability to secure basic necessities, they are excluded from the pursuit of happiness that Jefferson enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. Homeless shelters limit people’s ability to own items and bring them into a shelter. Storage facilities, where people may hope to keep things safe during an eviction, often become a black hole from which people’s possessions never return. Eviction leaves people with only the things they can carry with them, or perhaps with the things they can stuff in a car.
When people lose basic necessities they are effectively shut out of society. Sure, someone doesn’t need a TV, doesn’t need 5 pairs of shoes, and doesn’t need a coffee maker (that last one is arguable), but people do need things to brush their hair and teeth, enough changes of clothes to keep garments clean, and other basic necessities to avoid being shunned in public. We need small comforts from time to time to enjoy some aspect of life and feel human. We need connections, and that means we need some basic level of material possessions and a way to keep them out of the elements. Eviction takes these things away from people and makes lives fall apart. Housing needs to be a basic right, it needs to be something we make sure people have, otherwise we can never expect people to live the stable and responsible lives we want for them.
Polygamy, Eviction, & Community Investment

Polygamy, Eviction, & Community Investment

In The WEIRDest People in the World Joseph Henrich argues that ending polygamous marriage helped strengthen people’s sense of community by allowing more men to father children and have a reason to invest in the future. His argument is that in polygamous societies the highest status men attract multiple wives, making it harder for lower status men to get married and have children. Without prospects for a wife or family, these men become more transient, are more willing to take risks, and are less committed to any single place or community. Only allowing one wife per high status man means that lower status men can get married, have children, and find a reason to invest in their communities.
This idea from Henrich supports an argument made by Matthew Desmond in his book Evicted. Not writing about marriage and family policy, but instead about housing policy, Desmond also argues that transient individuals with no future prospects harm the development of community. He writes, “neighbors who cooperate with and trust one another can make their streets safer and more prosperous. But that takes time. Efforts to establish local cohesion and community investment are thwarted in neighborhoods with high turnover rates. In this way, eviction can unravel the fabric of a community.” 
Community requires long-term relationships, investments in people and places, and a commitment to the future. Henrich argues that giving men the opportunity to get married and build families provides these community pre-requisites. Desmond argues that the American system of evictions undermines these requirements. I think that looking at these two arguments together is interesting, and reinforces both.
Low-income tenants who face eviction, whether men or women, lack community and the benefits it provides. Their transient nature in places makes it hard for them to invest in relationships and doesn’t give them hope that the place they live can be better in the future.  They underinvest in the places they live, hurting the community for themselves and others. Single men in polygamous societies are similar. They can’t find a wife and engage in the community in a complete way, and also disinvest from the community, harming community growth and safety for everyone.
What is important to recognize is that community requires people with a commitment to a place and reason to invest in growth and development. Individuals need to feel that they are in a place where they can achieve their desires and where they feel they can be socially accepted to connect with others. When people do, they can create real communities that help make life better for everyone. When they don’t they can create problems and havoc that holds communities back.
Foundation in the Home

Foundation in the Home

For Matthew Desmond the problem of evictions is not just a problem that impacts a few unlucky people here or there. It is not even a problem for just the poorest among us or the most derelict and destitute members of American Society. Eviction is a problem of the nation, because the foundation of the nation, Desmond would ultimately argue, is the home.
“What else is a nation but a patchwork of cities and towns; cities and towns a patchwork of neighborhoods; and neighborhoods a patchwork of homes?” writes Desmond. Homes establish the foundational units which collectively come together to create a nation. Without places to live, people don’t have places to come together and create a society. A nation relies on individuals living together and forging their communities, cities, and nations jointly.
In this way, an eviction is not isolated to just a tenant and a landlord. In a direct sense, police, storage companies, and shelters are impacted by eviction. And in a broader and more indirect sense, local businesses, politicians, and eventually the entire society is impacted by eviction, especially as one eviction turns into multiple evictions and builds into an eviction epidemic. Evictions, being tied to the foundational building block of the nation, impact all of society.
I believe that for Desmond this is what drove him to do the research for Evicted and to share the stories of those directly involved in the eviction epidemic in America. By describing the people facing eviction, the landlords kicking them out, and the entire housing and economic systems that allow for such high rates of eviction, Desmond is helping us better understand the realities and costs of eviction. We have to have a full picture of eviction to appreciate its impact on our nation and to move forward in a way that better supports and integrates the poorest members of our society. We have to support the homes in order to support our communities, cities, and our nation as a whole.
Nuisance Citation Evictions

Nuisance Citation Evictions

I’ve only spent a few months of my life renting rather than owning my own home. What I did not learn in a few months of renting, but what I learned from Matthew Desmond’s book Evicted, is that tenants can be evicted when they receive too many emergency response calls. Landlords can receive nuisance citations if police, fire, or medical first responders are called to a property they own more than a certain number of times within a given period. No one likes having sirens wake them up at night and no one likes having their street blocked by first responder vehicles. These laws are intended to help protect people living around homes that have rowdy neighbors that have police called for parties, drug dealing, or dangerous behaviors that result in fire and ambulance calls.
Unfortunately, innocent victims can also be caught up in these laws and evicted by tenants who don’t want fines from numerous nuisance citations at a property they own. Desmond first introduces evictions for nuisance citations with a character in his book who has a son with asthma. As a struggling single mother, she had trouble affording her son’s asthma medicine. If her son had an asthma attack and needed medical attention, the mother had to make a decision between calling an ambulance and trying to get her son to the hospital herself. If she called for an ambulance too many times, her landlord might get a nuisance citation, and if that happened, she may be evicted from the property. Essentially, the mother was punished and threatened with eviction because she was too poor to afford her son’s asthma medicine.
Another example of nuisance citation evictions that Desmond highlights are domestic violence evictions. If I were renting an apartment and my neighbors experienced domestic violence, I’m sure that I would be uncomfortable, especially if I could hear yelling and physical abuse. I would be grateful for nuisance citations which might help get the violent couple evicted from the unit next to me. However, while I might benefit, the couple involved in the domestic violence certainly would not, and society would have to deal with the costs of their eviction and their abusive situation sprawling into the street. According to Desmond, this happens frequently.
He writes, “In the vast majority of cases (83 percent), landlords who received a nuisance citation for domestic violence responded by either evicting tenants or by threatening  to evict them for future police calls. Sometimes, this meant evicting a couple, but most of the time landlords evicted women abused by men who did not live with them.”
The vast majority of domestic violence victims are women, and when they risk possible nuisance citation evictions, they are put in the difficult position of deciding between housing and violence. Reporting domestic violence too often could mean losing housing. But choosing not to call the police to respond to domestic violence could mean remaining in a dangerous situation. What is worse, as Desmond’s quote shows, women often are evicted for domestic violence that comes not from a husband, but from a boyfriend or significant-other who is not married or truly committed to the woman. It can be hard for a single mom to make it on her own, and that may necessitate turning to a man for support, assistance with children, and extra income, but for some women at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, that can also mean opening themselves to potential violence. Nuisance citations mean that they then have to decide between violence and eviction, a tradeoff that no one should have to make.
Community & Trauma

Community & Trauma

In many ways I think it is a good thing that our nation does so much to celebrate the individual. We mythologize our greatest national founders, we try to embody the spirit of our greatest leaders, and we look up to great entrepreneurs today who are trying to solve some of our most challenging problems. Hard work, ingenuity, personal responsibility, and talent are the things we praise the most in these individuals, focusing on how great our society can be if we all strive to be as good as these leaders. Unfortunately, this hyper-individualism focus of the United States seems to be pulling us away from engagement with our communities as we focus inward on our selves, and can have devastating effects.
US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has argued, especially with the COVID-19 Pandemic, that our nation faces a crisis of loneliness. We have fewer social groups and organizations that we engage with. We spend more time in our homes watching TV and less time participating in social and community focused groups. When we are shut away inside, this puts some individuals at risk of domestic violence, drug abuse and addiction, and mental health challenges like depression. Ultimately, as our community institutions are left to dwindle with our relentless focus on the individual, we risk increasing the trauma that individual members experience, which has a positive feedback loop on diminishing notions of community.
In the book Evicted Matthew Desmond writes, “Milwaukee renters who perceived higher levels of neighborhood trauma – believing that their neighbors had experienced incarceration, abuse, addiction, and other harrowing events – were far less likely to believe that people in their community could come together to improve their lives. This lack of faith had less to do with their neighborhood’s actual poverty and crime rates than with the level of concentrated suffering they perceived around them.” Trauma destroys community, and destroyed communities create more opportunities for trauma. The more trauma and the weaker a sense of community, the more isolated and hopeless people become.
I don’t think anyone can overcome trauma on their own. People who have experienced any trauma, from minor to extreme, need the help of stable, compassionate, and trained individuals to live healthily. However, our hyper focus on the personal responsibility of the individual fails to account for trauma. You cannot pull yourself up by the bootstraps, demonstrate extreme grit, or maintain self-control when dealing with trauma. You need community, you need other people to help create safe places where you can engage in the world around you, and you need caring people who can serve as role mentors and coaches to help you get through.
As we have allowed community to dwindle, we have removed the supports that help us overcome trauma. We have removed safe spaces for us to see that we can interact with others, come together to have fun and complete socially beneficial projects, or to provide support for one another. We focus on what we as individuals can do (even when it is being socially responsible and volunteering our time), not on what we can be as a community. This drives our isolation, leaves those who experience trauma without positive and healthy outlets, and diminishes our sense of community, further crumbling the lives and institutions of those living in poverty or trying to get through deep trauma. Celebrating the achievements and success of the individual is great, but not when it comes at the expense of our community and the institutions that help support all of us.
Integrating the Poor

Integrating the Poor

In $2.00 A Day, Kathrin Edin and H. Luke Shaefer write the following about working to improve the lives for the poorest people in the Untied States, “the primary reason to strive relentlessly for approaches that line up with what most Americans believe is moral and fair is that government programs that are out of sync with these values serve to separate the poor from the rest of society, not integrate them into society.” Shaefer and Edin explain that most Americans think we should be doing more to help the poor, but that they also dislike the idea of giving free aid to the undeserving. Consequently, any programs that are designed to help the poor, the authors argue, should be generous, but should match what Americans believe is moral and fair, otherwise it will leave the poor as an undeserving separate class, and keep them from integrating with society.
This is an important idea to consider. We want to do more to help the poor, and many would argue that we have an obligation to help the poorest among us live dignified lives with a reasonable floor set for their income, healthcare, education, and access to opportunities to advance. At the same time, giving aid and benefits to those who are not seen as deserving, particularly in America where we constantly judge ourselves and others on measures of hard work and moral character, will create problems and schisms within society. The result would be a form of economic segregation, cutting the poorest off from the rest of society, perpetuating and reinforcing the existing problems that we see among the poorest individuals in the nation.
The authors continue, “the ultimate litmus test we endorse for any reform is whether it will serve to integrate the poor – particularly the $2.00-a-day poor – into society. It is not enough to provide material relief to those experiencing extreme deprivation. We need to craft solutions that can knit these hard-pressed citizens back into the fabric of their communities and their nation.”
One of the great failings of our current society is our de facto acceptance of economic segregation in the United States.  For a few decades the poor were stuck in dense and ignored city centers while the middle class fled to suburbs to live out the American Dream and the wealthy locked themselves within gated communities to keep their vast wealth to themselves, away from the prying eyes of everyone else. The poor were cut off from any real or meaningful interaction with the middle and upper classes.  Zoning regulations and the way we developed neighborhoods meant that people in certain areas all had similar incomes. The rich were grouped among the rich, the middle class among the middle class, the poor among the poor, and the poorest of the poor amongst only themselves. Real community connection for each group dissipated, with no group fully comprehending the struggles, fears, and problems of the others.
The poorest of the poor were the ones most hurt by this economic segregation, and it is one of the first things the authors suggest we address to begin to help the poor. Their first suggestion is a jobs guarantee, to ensure that everyone can do some sort of work to earn money and be seen as deserving for further aid. In the end, however, I think the authors would agree that we need to find ways to better integrate society and rebuild community organizations and institutions that help bring people together, not keep them separated in their own homes and neighborhoods, where everyone else that they interact with in a meaningful way is like they are. We cannot address the worst poverty in our country if we don’t find a way to overcome economic segregation and to better integrate the poor into society in a meaningful way.
Can We Improve Time Usage by focusing on the U-Index? Joe Abittan

Can We Improve Time Usage?

I believe that we can come together as a society and make decisions that will help improve the world we live in. I believe we can cooperate, we can improve systems and structures, and we can change norms, customs, and procedures to help make the world a better place to live in. I believe we can reduce the U-index in each of our lives.

 

Daniel Kahneman describes the U-index, a term his research team coined, in his book Thinking Fast and Slow by writing, “We called the percentage of time that an individual spends in an unpleasant state the U-index. For example, an individual who spent 4 hours of a 16-hour waking day in an unpleasant state would have a U-index of 25%.”

 

To a certain extent, the U-index is a measure of how well people use their time. Some of us are great at maximizing our waking hours and filling our time with meaningful and enjoyable activities. Some of us are not great at it, and some of us have serious limitations that prevent us from being able to use our time in a way that would maximize our individual U-index. “The use of time is one of the areas of life over which people have some control,” Kahneman writes, but still, there are larger structural factors that shape how we can use our time. Long commutes, limited child care, poor service quality in the public and private sectors, and limited spaces for socialization and exercise can all contribute to the amount of time people spend in unpleasant states, and are largely beyond the control of a single individual. Investments in these spaces will help improve the U-index for the people who get trapped by them. They are also areas where we can make public investments, come together as communities to improve the use of public space, and pool resources to develop new technologies that can reduce travel time, create more responsive and quicker services, and reduce the effort spent dealing with unpleasant people and spaces.

 

For things we can control, Kahneman has a recommendation, “The feelings associated with different activities suggest that another way to improve experience is to switch time from passive leisure, such as TV watching, to more active forms of leisure, including socializing and exercise.”

 

Watching TV, listening to podcasts, or reading a book can be great leisure, but we are social animals, and we need some degree of interaction with others. Unfortunately, we have become more dependent on TV and other fairly antisocial and isolating forms of entertainment. As each of us retreats into our homes (during non COVID times of course) for entertainment and leisure rather than spending time in our community with others, we reduce the opportunities for and the value of social activities. The more we get out and connect, the better our lives will be collectively.

 

And that is why I believe it is important that we believe that we can make the world a better place. There is an element of personal responsibility in making better use of our time and improving our U-index through our own choices and actions. Simultaneously, there is a social and public need for investment and collective action to help us make those choices which are more active and engaging. We won’t want to get out and take part in social activities if we have a long and difficult commute. If we can’t live in the city or in an interesting place with opportunities to interact with others because we can’t afford to live close by, then we won’t make the effort to get involved. If we don’t have safe, clean, and inviting parks and public spaces where we can engage with others, if businesses and public agencies can’t provide spaces with adequate and friendly services, then we won’t want to connect with the world. Kahneman suggest that even small reductions of say 1% to our societal U-index would be hugely impactful. Anything we can do to help reduce the time people spend in unpleasant states will mean fewer suicides, less depression and anger, and fewer negative interactions between people. Making investments to speed up travel, free people from menial tasks and chores, and make public spaces more inviting will help us connect and be happier as an entire society. At that point, it becomes easier to chose active rather than passive leisure and to be more involved rather than to retreat into our homes and Netflix accounts.
Money Priming

Money Priming

An idea I have been a little obsessed with for the last several months is the importance of community in the lives of human beings. We are social creatures, and we depend on social structures for support, connection, joy, and meaning. During the Pandemic, we have had to face an absence of community, pulling back even more from the social groups and settings of our lives. America was already isolated in many ways, and I am worried for the long-term consequences of what we will lose in terms of community from this Pandemic.

 

One reason why the United States has dealt with diminishing senses of community may be related to our pursuit of wealth. Our culture values money and success so much that we elected a man with no political experience, with a history of bankruptcy, but with extraordinary bravado around his personal wealth to be our president. We elected President Trump because many of us wanted to feel a sense of greater wealth, or at least a possibility of greater financial success, and liked the ways in which he represented those ideas.

 

(I will pause for a minute to note that I think the president is reprehensible and I am glad I did not and never will vote for him. I also want to recognize that I am viewing supporters of the president in the general sense, applying a more positive lens toward them than others might. I recognize and understand that many of his supporters have dangerous and disgusting racial views that should be abhorred, but I also recognize that many of his supporters generally don’t think about politics much and like the presentation of wealth and the possibility of wealth that he presents.)

 

In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman presents information about how money priming impacts our brains. Factors related to money seem to trigger specific responses and behaviors in people. As he writes, “The general theme of these findings is that the idea of money primes individualism: a reluctance to be involved with others, to depend on others, or to accept demands from others.” Money, in other words, works against community.

 

Individualism itself is not terrible. I don’t know where the balance should lie between community and individualism, and I feel myself pulled in separate directions regarding both. However, I believe it is our connections to each other and our shared goals and purposes that will help us feel a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. Living in suburban homes (as I do), parking in our garages, and withdrawing into our homes to stream shows (also guilty!) is individualistic and exclusionary. It doesn’t help us have meaningful relationships with our friends, families, neighbors, and fellow citizens. It doesn’t help us work toward shared goals, doesn’t help us develop sustainable futures, and doesn’t help us better understand each other.

 

We need more community in our lives to tackle major problems in our society. Unfortunately, America is committed to ideas of wealth creation to an extent that limits our ability to build the community we need. Money priming influences how we behave in relation to each other, and it is not helping rebuild the communities that we have allowed to atrophy over the decades.
Time

Think More About Your Time

A little over a year ago I took a job that had a long commute, a little over 30 miles one way, 60+ miles daily for the round trip. Mornings were usually pretty quick, because I would be out of the house early for a work out and would beat a lot of traffic, but afternoons were often brutal for me, with a minimum 45 minute drive home. If there was an accident on the freeway, it easily became and hour and half drive home in the afternoon. The time I spent by myself in the car, listening to podcasts, occasionally calling a friend, or maybe listening to some music made me think about just how important the good use of ones time is. Each day, I spent at least one hour and fifteen minutes in a car by myself. I had to dress professionally, which meant that I had to have gym bag packed with slacks, a belt, a dress shirt, and from time to time a tie. In the mornings I woke up early to write and blog, and then I was out of the house quickly to get to the gym on time. I had to rush through work-outs and a post-work shower to make sure I had enough time to change into my business clothes for the remainder of the drive to work. After work, I felt a pressure to get out the door as quick as possible and get across the 30 miles of road to my house, minimizing the time I was on the road and the chance I would get caught in a traffic jam from an accident. In the evening I had to spend at least 30 minutes prepping my lunch for the next day and making sure I had all my clothes set in my gym bag and ready to go. As it turns out, I’m not great at this, and I frequently forget my lunch or to pack my shoes when I am on a time crunch and will need to have a bunch of stuff ready and with me.

 

I was feeling first hand, until the pandemic started and I shifted to working from home, what it is like to not have enough time. I have heard on a few podcasts (I searched but couldn’t find where exactly) that the word time is the most frequently used word in the English language. It is the one thing that we always have, but never have enough of. It is the one thing we can never get more of, and it is important that we use it well. However, as I look around at the people in my life, I see that we rarely think of how we use our time as critically as we should. As Seneca wrote to his friend in Letters From a Stoic, “Nothing, Lucilius, is ours, except time. We were entrusted by nature with the ownership of this single thing, so fleeting and slippery that anyone who will can oust us from possession.”

 

We can lose our possession of time if another person takes our life. We can lose our ability to use our time if someone creates some major obstacle for us that we have to climb through (like working through identity theft). And on top of that we can squander our time in a meaningless way (like by commuting long distances by ourselves in our cars).

 

My recent experiences have forced me to re-think how I have used time, experienced time, and what it means to be aware of time. When we think about our time, we can change our approach to our day and re-shape our habits, routines, and activities so that we don’t waste our time and let it slip through our fingers without control. I know I am lucky to be in a place to make changes in my life to adjust how I spend my time, and I know not everyone has the same privileges to adjust their lives in relation to time, but for those of us who can, I think it is important that we think more about our time. We should make adjustments to give time back to our lives by spending more time with loved ones or with meaningful activities that engage us with others and build a sense of community. We should avoid long commutes, we should focus on spending our time doing things that help improve our communities, and we should not be willing to trade too much of our time for money, if we are in a position to say no to the extra money we get for the time we give up.
An Addiction to Consumerism

An Addiction to Consumerism

Johann Hari doesn’t believe that the answer to solving our nation’s drug problems lies in locking up drug users and dealers. He doesn’t believe that those who develop addictions are some type of moral failure. He doesn’t think that what we need is better enforcement of laws, more policing, and better deterrence through the criminal legal process. What Hari believes is necessary is that we focus on reducing the harms of illicit drug use, and start asking larger questions about what motivates all of us, and how we interact and connect with one another.

 

There is a larger addiction than drug addiction that Hari is concerned about, addiction to consumption in general. As a culture, the United States has spent years believing that we could be content and happy in our own homes, as long as we can buy lots of things to fill our homes. We moved to suburbs where we could drive to and from work, park our cars in our garages, hire people to do our yard work, and never have to see or interact with people we don’t know. We watch TV, scroll through social media, and stay inside where it is safe and where we can be around our possessions.

 

“We all know deep down it doesn’t make us happy,” Hari Writes, “to be endlessly working to buy shiny consumer objects we have seen in advertisements. But we keep doing it, day after day. It in fact occupies most of our time on earth. We could slow down. We could work less and buy less. It would prevent the environment – our habitat – from being systematically destroyed. But we don’t do it, because we are isolated in our individual cages. In that environment, the idea of consuming less, in fact, fills us with panic.”

 

Across the United States we have developed an addiction to consumerism. We have lost the sense of community that has held together human beings for our evolutionary history, and we have limited our interactions with people in the outside world to meaningless transactions. We then criticize those who cannot find meaning in our consumerism and turn to drugs. We failed to provide them with a community and real relationships with other humans, and as a result people turned to drugs and we further outcasted them. Our consumerism has many negative externalities, and Hari would argue that isolation and addiction are consequences of our consumer culture. To solve drug addiction, he believes, requires that we re-think our ideas of consumerism, and start to look more toward re-engagement with community over individual purchases of things.