Essay: Milwaukee Eviction Policy Shows We are Unequal From Birth

Jubilation greets arrival of her grandson, but news of another child’s fate tempers that joy.

I arrived in Brooklyn last July to experience a miracle. I held my first grandchild, 10-day-old Cashel Alexander. Overwhelmed by how small and fragile and precious he was, I sometimes joked with my daughter, “Keep him alive, all else is commentary.”

Two days later, that off-hand joke sickened my stomach.

I was skimming through JSOnline, and a headline caught my eye: “How 6 Milwaukee kids died in 5 days.” The first death – I had difficulty reading further – involved Miguel Henderson, a preterm baby with an ailing heart. Miguel died the day after he, his mother and three siblings were evicted from their North Side home. Miguel was 27 days old.

While in Brooklyn, I would look at Cashel, think of Miguel and be tempted to say, “There but for the grace of God.” But I knew that grace had nothing to do with it. Cashel is white, of middle-class parents. Miguel was black, evicted from a home in Milwaukee’s central city.

Months later, I still can’t wrap my head around Miguel’s death. One question, above all, lingers: How could anyone – especially landlords, judges, sheriff’s deputies – allow the eviction of a premature newborn in delicate health? Do we, as a society, believe that is acceptable public policy?

Miguel’s story received 139 words in the newspaper. Based on Google searches, there was no television or radio coverage that mentioned his name.

According to state data, roughly 15,000 people were evicted in Milwaukee County in 2016 – slightly more than the population of Whitefish Bay. A disproportionate number of those evicted were women and children. Less than one percent had an attorney. I wonder: If everyone in Whitefish Bay had been evicted last year, wouldn’t officials have put a stop to such madness? If nothing else, the media would have gone crazy.

In 2016, Matthew Desmond wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book based on Milwaukee, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. Desmond documents how Milwaukee’s housing market systematically helps landlords make substantial money off poor people – that the problem isn’t just that poor people have
trouble paying rent, but that the housing and eviction market is structured to increase profits for central city landlords.

The book received extensive local publicity, almost as if there were reason to be proud that a book about Milwaukee won the Pulitzer Prize, even though the book reflected horribly on the city. But there were no outcries for change.

At some point in our state’s history, we had the compassion to pass a law preventing utilities from being shut off in winter, apparently believing we should not allow people to freeze to death. I asked Raphael Ramos, head of Legal Action of Wisconsin’s Eviction Defense Project, if there were a similar statute preventing evictions of people with serious medical conditions. He couldn’t think of one. Nor is there a moratorium on wintertime evictions.

Miguel lived in a single-family bungalow near North 47th Street and West Meinecke Avenue. The family had planned to sleep in their van after the eviction June 5, but snuck back inside when it got chilly. In the morning, the baby was unresponsive.

The Medical Examiner’s autopsy report lists the cause and manner of death as “undetermined.” It notes a history of cosleeping, and cites the baby’s prematurity and heart condition. There was no evidence of injury.

As with most tragedies, there are more questions than answers. Ultimately, the heartbreak of Miguel’s death goes beyond his story and speaks to the ongoing epidemic of evictions in Milwaukee.

City of Milwaukee records list the home’s owner as JPMorgan Chase Bank. When I went by in late September, the home was abandoned, with 4-foot weeds, broken windows and unpainted, rickety porch steps. The tragedy of Miguel was compounded by the tragedy of a blighted home on a block of modest but well-maintained bungalows in a neighborhood struggling for respectability.

Miguel Edward Henderson Jr., meanwhile, was buried June 16 at Graceland Cemetery in a section known as “Babyland” – described by one Graceland worker as “the saddest place in the cemetery.” This fall I visited Miguel’s grave, inexplicably compelled to extend my condolences. I whispered the only thing that seemed appropriate: “May he rest in peace.” 

‘Unequal From Birth’ appears in the January 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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