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.
Those with jobs spoke about the fragility of employment in low-wage industries. “Last Saturday . . . my wife was having delivery pains and going into labor. I told the supervisor that I couldn’t go in that day because the baby was being born,” said one focus group participant. “On Monday, I had to miss again because my wife and son were being discharged from the hospital. On Tuesday I showed up at the normal hour, and my name had been crossed off the schedule. I called the boss, and she just said, ‘No more work for you,’ and hung up on me. I worked there six years, and she said, ‘No more work for you.’”
Unsurprisingly, crime disproportionately affects low-income communities. Three in 10 survey participants had been the victim of crime in the past two years, and one in six had experienced gun violence. While many appreciated law enforcement’s role in maintaining public safety, one in four viewed the police with skepticism—for either stopping them without cause or being insufficiently responsive to their problems.
These highlights are the tip of the iceberg. What the report illustrates is that low-income D.C. residents live in a constant state of uncertainty, anxiety, and fear. They struggle relentlessly to secure fundamental necessities for themselves and their families. Yet, the report also affirms what years working in civil legal services have taught us: that despite the odds, low-income communities are resilient and resourceful. Focus group participants overwhelmingly identified families, their elders, places of worship, recreation centers and their neighborhoods as sources of strength and support.
This month, the D.C. Council will engage in an annual tradition: considering the mayor’s budget and making decisions about how to spend taxpayer money. In the balance are programs that significantly affect low-income D.C. residents: whether to avoid terminating cash benefits for more than 6,000 families that include more than 13,000 children, where and how to house the District’s homeless population, how much support to provide to agencies that administer public benefits, how much to fund the maintenance and expansion of affordable housing in the District. The list goes on. We urge everyone involved in the decision process — especially the mayor and councilmembers, but also anyone who can influence them — to read and consider this timely report.
“Poor people are not just like rich people without money,” professor Stephen Wexler declared in a 1970 Yale Law Journal article. Rich people, he observed, live “harmonious and settled private lives” that are occasionally disrupted by a car accident, a dog bite or some other misfortune that may fall upon them. “Poor people get hit by cars too; they get evicted; they have their furniture repossessed; they can’t pay their utility bills,” he continues. But for people living in poverty, these incidents are not life’s little disruptions. They comprise life itself. They are what people living in and on the cusp of poverty must negotiate every day.
This report provides us new insights into the struggles of low-income D.C. residents. The question now is what we do with them.
The writers are co-chairs of the D.C. Consortium of Legal Services Providers, a coalition of 30 organizations that provide direct legal services to low-income D.C. residents.