Evicted and displaced: American reality comes to DC


Photo by Chau Nguyen

Chau Nguyen

Having a stable place to call “home” is one of the first steps to anyone’s successful life and career. Yet heartbreakingly, 2.3 million Americans each year are being forced to abandon their home. It doesn’t matter if the belongings are packed or the kids are ready, it’s time to leave: the eviction has come.

This spring, the National Building Museum opened the exhibition “Evicted, exploring the horrendous impact that court-ordered evictions have on low-income renters all over America. With access to data on legal eviction filing, sociologist Matthew Desmond presents us with immersive infographics, context, and photos, while prompting us to take action and make the change.

Eviction, by definition, is a forced, legal displacement from a place of residence. It reveals a stunning lack of housing stability and timely federal housing aid. By focusing on people’s everyday lives, Desmond shows us the complicated relationship between poverty and eviction, a process that “bounds poor and rich people together in mutual dependence and struggle”.

Spending over an hour in the exhibition, I was impressed with how it employs a wide range of simple, yet thought-provoking, infographics. This has successfully delivered the urgency of the national crisis to visitors. Outstandingly, a wall of gold keys illustrates the disproportionate effect of eviction on women, and a diagram of “nuisance ordinance cycle” sheds light on how income inequality makes it even harder for poor renters to recover from homelessness. Filled with essential statistics, visitors are able to find out the origin of American housing crisis and the hidden threat it has on citizens.

In real life, for a family to receive eviction notice, the result is a devastating event; a link in a long chain of problems. Not just about losing private lives and possessions, oftentimes eviction leads to a seemingly never-ending phase of hard times. Housing instability leads to problems at school, work, health issues, and community disengagement for children and families. Eviction thereby affects all of us, either directly or indirectly. To illustrate the disastrous effect, the exhibition is constructed in a unique model of an abandoned house, filled with deeply moving images and videos. As a way to thoroughly depict the hardships that families, especially children, have to go through, original audio interviews are employed, thus further exploring the depths of the problem. A teenager can’t wait to distribute food to the homeless, yet ironically finds himself in the same situation months later and doesn’t know which school he will go to. A single mom struggles to make ends meet while facing the threat of eviction from her landlord. However, what struck me the most was a real-life object: a towering pile of personal belongings, which must carry much experience and memories of its owner, is wrapped up, ready to be disposed of. The exhibition allows visitors to gain perspective into tenant families and how they undergo a sense of repeated frustration, pain and loss.

Although it would be better to propose some possible solution for the crisis, “Evicted” does a great job of providing visitors with essential information and highlighting the need for policy change. As I reflected on my experience, I found that the biggest takeaway would be a deep and proper understanding of the problem, and a will to make a difference.