By Linda Stamato
A new exhibit, Evicted, at the National Building Museum in Washington DC features contributions from Homeless Solutions Inc., the Morristown-based nonprofit that has sheltered, housed and offered social services for 1,100 Morris County residents over the last two years.
HSI Director Dan McGuire considers the exhibit a ground-breaking endeavor that is likely to raise public awareness of the grim, painful, and often lasting experience of being evicted.
“Eviction is not just about the loss of private space and possessions. It often leads to a spiral of hard times, affecting everything from physical and mental health, job performance and school stability,” McGuire said.
The exhibit draws from stories and images of eight Milwaukee families on the edge, from the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond, a professor of sociology at Princeton University.
It’s a compelling story of the human cost of inequality, and the determination and resilience of individuals and families in the face of poverty and dispossession.
The stories of five Homeless Solutions program participants are featured in Evicted as well. They shared their very personal and emotional accounts of being homeless, adding vivid perspective and detail to this extraordinary exhibit.
To emphasize the impact of poverty on housing, curators for Evicted note they paid $586 for the particle board used in the exhibit. That’s about the same amount of money one of Desmond’s subjects in Milwaukee would make in a month.
How far would that sum go in Morris County? The average gross income of the 20 families now residing in Homeless Solutions shelter programs is $1,286 a month, making it impossible for them to pay rent, childcare and other expenses — because housing in the county averages around $1,600 a month, to live comfortably.
(The Economic Policy Institute’s family budget calculator, moreover, suggests $8,677 is needed every month to live comfortably in Morris County.)
Shannon Muti, women and family services manager at Homeless Solutions, thinks Evicted is especially valuable because it is so informative.
Eviction is a crisis in the United States, even in Morris County, she says, where 57 percent of families served in HSI’s transitional housing program became homeless through some form of eviction.
McGuire emphasized: “Evictions follow families, sometimes for the rest of their lives.”
With the negative rental histories that evictions leave in their wake, future landlords, including affordable housing properties and public housing authorities, can deny them housing, thus creating a vicious cycle that significantly reduces choices for families.
Echoing Matthew Desmond, Muti observed that families helped by Homeless Solutions “never chose to not pay rent, they couldn’t pay rent and their other expenses, including food for their children, because their incomes were too low. Choosing between a roof over your head and food in your mouth is a choice no parent ever wants to make.”
Homelessness is a public health challenge. The Eviction Lab at Princeton University has been researching causes of housing instability and its consequences, and evaluating housing-based solutions to ameliorate poverty and promote economic mobility and community health and vitality.
As Muti points out, increasing access to free- or low-cost legal services for those facing eviction is critical, as is advocating for homeless families so that landlords will give them another chance.
For those facing eviction in Morris County, Homeless Solutions is vigorously taking on these challenges, striving to offer “a hand up, not a handout,” according to its motto.
This work is critical, and needs a lot more support from the public.
Linda Stamato lives in Morristown’s Franklin Corners neighborhood, and is a faculty member at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers.