OK, this was the book I needed for quarantine. I’ve bemoaned my pre-shelter-in-place-self’s propensity to buy books that skewed apocalyptic or bore too close a resemblance to my current situation (damn you Past Octothorp, you couldn’t have known, but still!), and I’ve joked about it but honestly, the zombie spores and isolation books haven’t really bothered me. The depressing ones cut a little deeper. This wasn’t a reprieve from the darkness, but nothing makes sheltering in place seem like a privilege than reading about people who don’t have the luxury of the first part.
Desmond’s non-fiction book puts faces to housing insecurity, and doesn’t flinch from the less sympathetic parts. We follow a nurse who stole fentanyl patches from his ailing charges and the subsequent loss of his job and income, as well as a woman whose bad financial habits contribute to her eviction, but also families whose poor circumstances just compound their troubles. A badly tended apartment leads to tenants taking matters into their own hands when their landlord refuses to fix a broken window or blocked faucet, but the repairs cost money they don’t have, and the landlord evicts them when they pay rent less the repair costs. Reporting domestic abuse of neighbors gets the landlord of another to evict her for police presence. Children misbehaving due to missing school from multiple moves results in another eviction. One problem leads to another; spiraling into poverty means one thing going wrong, escaping it requires twenty things all going perfectly.
The people in this book often do things that I can’t bear to call poor choices when no reasonable alternative was present. Prostitution, robbery, drugs, and small luxuries all seem irresponsible, but how else does one act when faced with hunger, sleeping in train stations, or the loss of your children? It’s all understandable even if the circumstances are incomprehensible. One chapter, “Lobster on Food Stamps” follows Larraine, fresh with food stamp money and unstable housing, celebrating her anniversary (solo, as her spouse died in prison of an overdose) with lobster. She deems the extravagance worth it, even if it means subsisting on noodles for the rest of the month. Desmond points out that many of the people denying Larraine help judge her for poor spending habits as she should be more frugal being poor, but given her miserable circumstances (and the fact that landlords can’t accept food stamps) it’s more accurate to say she spends because she’s poor, rather than she’s poor because she spends.
This book is heartbreaking, but necessary. Stay at home, and acknowledge the blessing that a home is.