Forced Out: Why the Faithful Must Put Poor People’s Interests First
In 2016, Princeton University professor and sociologist, Matthew Desmond, published Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (winner of the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Critics Circle, and Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction). Set in poverty-stricken areas of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Desmond’s treatise focuses on the catastrophic effects and pandemic scale of evictions in America. Desmond estimates that in 2016, 2.3 million evictions were filed in the U.S., or four every minute. Overwhelmingly, the reason for an eviction is the inability to meet the rent. Most of poor renting families spend over half of their income on housing, with one in four paying over 70% in rent and utilities. This ratio is an inversion of the general rule that households should budget 30% on housing. The center is not holding.
Atlanta, particularly Fulton County, has one of the nation’s worst eviction rates. As reported in a November 3, 2017 Atlanta Journal Constitution article, and backed by a Federal Reserve study, in Fulton County, about one in four households receive an eviction notice each year. East Point, College Park, and Union City experience eviction rates well over 40 percent. Although it is difficult to ascertain the exact rate at which eviction notices translate into executed evictions, Clemson University Professor, Dr. Elora Raymond, confirms in Evicted in Atlanta, that Atlanta has the nation’s third highest eviction rate in the nation.
The forced loss of one’s dwelling has profoundly negative social and psychological outcomes. For example, people who lose their legal right to their dwelling, and where the landlord applied for the eviction, are nearly nine times more likely to commit suicide than others. Families with children are also more likely to face eviction according to Desmond, stating in 2016, “the face of the eviction epidemic belongs to moms and kids, and it has a disproportionate effect on low-income African American women and low-income Latino women.” The long-term consequences of evictions for children and mothers are well documented. Children who experience an eviction are twice as likely to be in poor health, while mothers who have experienced eviction report significantly higher rates of material and mental hardship two years after the eviction.
The adverse effects of evictions and forced displacements are also not simply isolated to the individual members of the household. Desmond states in an April 12, 2018 interview with NPR, “Eviction isn’t just a condition of poverty; it’s a cause of poverty. Eviction is a direct cause of homelessness, but it also is a cause of residential instability, school instability [and] community instability.” Forced displacements, such as what took place at Buckhead’s Darlington Apartments in late 2018, rip apart communities and force the poor to relocate far from workplaces and social support networks. The map below shows only the households that Buckhead Christian Ministry relocated from the Darlington displacement in October and November of this year. These households are now strewn across the city, away from their houses of worship, friends, family, and work places.
Events like the shuttering of Peachtree and Pine Shelter in 2017, the Darlington displacement almost exactly a year later, coupled with the BeltLine’s continued and admitted struggles to keep up with its commitment to produce affordable housing bely a gestalt in the city that homelessness, affordability, and equity are truly priorities – or at least priorities for which there are promises made and kept. On the other hand, there are glimmers of hope, such as the Regional Commission on Homelessness, the work of the Westside Future Fund, and many other nonprofits in the poverty alleviation space. However, there is no amount of philanthropy or noble charity work that can beat market forces and public policy that fail to have the poor’s interests front and center. Atlanta’s leadership must prioritize the interests of the poor, especially working families, in every aspect of community development and public policy. Citizens who envision a community free of hunger and homelessness, must demand action on affordability, wages, and displacements.
We must also hold our officials accountable when they fail to deploy available resources designated specifically for the poor. In October, the AJC reported that for simply failing to spend it, the City of Atlanta must return $1.3M in federal workforce development funds intended to get un- and under-employed Atlanta residents training so that they could get better jobs. Two months later, the City lost a $1M federal grant intended for affordable housing for, again, simply failing to spend the money on time. As City Councilman, Matt Westmoreland commented about returning the workforce development funding, “There’s a history here of us not doing right by our residents.”
So, what can the average Atlanta resident do right now to prioritize the interests of the poor? First, learn about the issues. Follow this column, like Facebook pages for Atlanta’s leading nonprofits fighting poverty, like Buckhead Christian Ministry (BCM), and read scholarly books like Desmond’s Evicted. Second, call your city officials and demand the prioritization of the city’s poor. Forced displacements are traumatic and while not entirely avoidable, can at least be handled with compassion. When the Darlington residents were displaced, BCM, along with other area nonprofits, showed up onsite to help relocate families – but this was a reaction to a crisis, rather than a planned process that put the resident’s interests first. The City must involve itself in protecting our most vulnerable especially in forced displacement events. At a minimum, the City must have better oversight over funds designated for assisting the poor. Finally, get involved in a trusted and effective Atlanta-based organization assisting the one-in-four Atlanta residents living in poverty. For more than 30 years Buckhead Christian Ministry (BCM), in partnership with dozens of Atlanta churches, has provided life-changing services to families and individuals in various stages of hunger or homelessness. The three chief programs are 1) emergency financial, food, and clothing assistance, 2) supportive housing for working families with children experiencing homelessness, and 3) financial education, debt relief, and employment assistance. More than 350 volunteers assist the 18-member staff in discharging this critical mission. Every day, BCM is disrupting preventable devastating evictions, keeping families in safe housing while assisting them in getting better paying jobs and achieving better education, and helping people get out from crippling debt, onto a budget, and increasing their wages.
Now serving the entire Atlanta region, BCM’s vision is a community free of hunger and homelessness. Join us as we stand up, speak out, and take on the barriers facing our fellow Atlanta neighbors from achieving their highest potential.