Cross-posted from the Washington Post
Eviction “is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty,” argues sociologist Matthew Desmond in his book Evicted. A recent report released from the D.C. Consortium of Legal Services Providers suggests that the two — seemingly intractable poverty and the struggle for safe, affordable housing — are inextricably linked here in the District. Housing instability and the fear of homelessness are the greatest worries of our most vulnerable neighbors.
But that list of anxieties is long, according to this new report. We dubbed the nearly three-and-a-half year undertaking that led to its issuance the “Community Listening Project” because we wanted to capture more than just impersonal data on the needs of individuals living in poverty. We wanted to hear about the problems they face and the strengths of their communities in their words.
Led by Faith Mullen, a clinical law professor, and Enrique Pumar, a sociologist, both at the Catholic University of America, the study is an exhaustive, qualitative analysis of focus group and survey responses from more than 700 D.C. residents whose household incomes are at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty guideline. (By 2013, roughly 228,300 people, or 35 percent of the District’s population, met this standard.) Its findings paint an illuminating, complex portrait of the lives of those among us struggling, and too often failing, to make ends meet.
Survey participants reported difficulty satisfying basic needs. Two-thirds worried about finding and maintaining adequate, stable shelter, and one in three said that keeping a roof over their heads was the most serious challenge they experienced in the past two years. Those who had housing reported enduring horrendous conditions — lack of heat or hot water, broken appliances, electrical hazards, mold, rodents — just to stay in it.
“There was a leak on the roof for two years that ruined my furniture,” said one survey participant. “I want to move out but can’t afford to.” Like so many others we met through the project, she undoubtedly knew if she gave up this home, she may never find another that fit her budget. And that meant she might end up with no home at all. Who knows where a complaint to the landlord or withholding rent might lead, but it usually isn’t worth the chance. Affordable housing in the District is too scarce.
Food insecurity is also a profound problem for D.C. residents living in or on the cusp of poverty. Almost half of survey participants reported “frequently” or “occasionally” worrying about whether they would have enough food for themselves and their families. Full-time employment was no insulation from these hardships; large numbers of working adults (and their children) experienced anxiety over food and housing.
Jobs remain elusive. Those that are open seem unattainable to the people who most need work. “I can’t find a job,” said one survey participant, “because I have no place to live, no place to get ready for an interview and no money to get to an interview.” These bleak realities, however, don’t keep those who are unemployed from continuing to try: Many survey participants who were homeless identified finding work — not housing — as their greatest challenge.