The Eviction Epidemic

February 8, 2016

Arleen Beale’s latest eviction began with a snowball fight. It was January of 2008, and Milwaukee was experiencing its snowiest winter on record. Arleen’s son Jori and his cousin were cutting up, packing powder tight and taking aim at the passing cars on Arthur Avenue. One jerked to a stop, and a man jumped out, chasing the boys to Arleen’s apartment, where he broke down the door with a few kicks. When the landlord found out about the property damage, she decided to evict. Arleen had been there with her sons—Jori was thirteen, Jafaris five—for eight months.

The day they had to be out was bitterly cold, but Arleen knew what would happen if she waited any longer to leave. Her first eviction had taken place sixteen years earlier, when she was twenty-two; she figured that she had rented twenty houses since turning eighteen. First, the landlord would summon the sheriff, who would arrive with a gun, a team of movers, and a judge’s order saying that her house was no longer hers.

Then Arleen would be given two options: “truck” or “curb.” “Truck” meant that her things would be loaded into an eighteen-footer and checked into bonded storage. She could get everything back after paying three hundred and fifty dollars. Arleen didn’t have the money, so she would have opted for “curb,” which meant that the movers would pile everything onto the sidewalk: mattresses; a floor-model television; her copy of “Don’t Be Afraid to Discipline”; a nice glass dining table and a lace tablecloth; the meat in the freezer.

Arleen was thirty-eight, with pecan-brown skin and world-weary eyes. She had supported her children over the years by working, as well as by relying on welfare. When Jori’s father left her, she had a cleaning job at Mainstay Suites, by the airport. In despair, she quit and began receiving welfare. Later, she found work wiping tables and mopping up spills at the Third Street Pier restaurant, but, after her mother died, she left that job, too.

When Arleen was evicted from her apartment on Arthur Avenue, she was receiving a stipend from Wisconsin Works, a family-aid program—a reduced amount, because she wasn’t working. The sum, in 2008, was the same as when welfare was reformed more than a decade earlier: $20.65 a day, $7,536 a year.

Arleen took her sons to a homeless shelter, where they stayed until April, when she found a house on Nineteenth and Hampton, in the predominantly black inner city, on Milwaukee’s North Side, where she’d grown up. There was often no running water, and Jori had to bucket out what was in the toilet. But Arleen loved that the rent was only five hundred and twenty-five dollars a month, and that the house was set apart from others on the block. “It was quiet,” she remembered. “It was my favorite place.”

After a few weeks, the city found the house “unfit for human habitation.” Arleen moved into a drab apartment complex deeper in the inner city, on Atkinson Avenue, which she soon learned was a haven for drug dealers. She feared for her boys, especially Jori, who was goofy and slack-shouldered and would talk to anyone. They endured four summer months there before their caseworker at Wraparound, a social-services agency, found them a bottom duplex unit on Thirteenth Street and Keefe.

To avoid embarrassment, Arleen and the boys walked their things over to the new place at night, pushing the larger items, like the sun-faded floral-print love seat, on top of a wheeled garbage can. At the house, she held her breath and tried the lights, smiling with relief when they came on. She could live off someone else’s electricity bill for a while.

There was a fist-size hole in a living-room window, the front door had to be locked with an ugly wooden plank dropped into metal brackets, and the carpet was filthy, the dirt ground in. But the kitchen was spacious and the living room well lit. Arleen stuffed a piece of clothing into the window hole and hung ivory curtains.

The rent was five hundred and fifty dollars a month, utilities not included—the going rate for a two-bedroom apartment in one of the worst neighborhoods in America’s fourth-poorest city—and would take eighty-eight per cent of Arleen’s six-hundred-and-twenty-eight-dollar-a-month welfare check. Maybe she could make it work, at least through the winter.

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