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Women and children hurt most by eviction

Social services, charities struggle to help social services, charities struggle to help

Published: Saturday, Feb. 23 2013 11:05 p.m. MST

Carreon and her family landed on their feet. With assistance from their church and a local community action program, Carreon found an apartment in Taylorsville that accepted her without questions. A portion of her monthly rent is subsidized by the Salt Lake Community Action Program. Carreon knows how fortunate she is. Things don't normally turn out this well for women in her situation.

Sindee Fell, 38, is representative of the numerous and cruel consequences of eviction in the lives of low income women and their children. Since August, Fell and her two children, a son age 5 and daughter age 17, have been living in a downtown Salt Lake City homeless shelter.

For the past five years Fell, who is unable to work because of health problems, has supported her family with a $356 per month welfare stipend and $360 in child support from her son's father. Things went sideways for the single mother when she unexpectedly stopped receiving child support.

Fell managed to pay her rent, but she fell behind on her utilities. She was ultimately evicted after seven years in her home for not paying a $290 gas bill. During the eviction proceedings, Fell was told by her landlord's lawyer, "If you would just pay your bills, you wouldn't be such a spot on society." Fell said she wanted to pay the bill — but with a weekly budget of about $90, she was making choices like paying to keep the heat on or buying groceries to feed her kids.

Caseworkers at the homeless shelter are doing what they can to help Fell and her children find a new home, but the blemish of an eviction is hard to overcome. "Evictions are a civil offense, so they go on your permanent record," said Ken Bresin, deputy director of Utah Legal Services, a federally funded nonprofit law office that provides counsel for low income families in non-criminal legal matters. If a landlord does a background check, and most do, they'll know if someone has ever been evicted, even if it was 15 years ago, Bresin said.

Fell, who graduated with honors from Taylorsville High School, has already been rejected from at least one place she applied to live. "I just keep hoping someone will look past the eviction," she said. But as the days pass, Fell admits it is hard to stay optimistic. She's been struggling with depression. "I used to want things, like my own house," she said. "I used to be a person with goals. I've given up on a lot."

Fell's children have also been deeply affected by their family situation. Tiara, Fell's 17-year-old daughter, dropped out of high school a few months ago after being taunted by classmates for living in a homeless shelter. "She is so insecure about herself," Fell said. The ridicule of her peers was too much to take. Fell hoped her daughter, who has always earned good grades, would go to college. She acknowledges that the longer they stay where they are, the less likely it is that those dreams will come true.

A public solution

While numerous private programs exist to help low income families deal with skyrocketing rents, Desmond believes the most powerful solution to the problem is publicly funded housing programs. "The solution is there," he said. "We just need to fund it."

Wait times for public housing range from a couple years in Utah to 10 years in New York City, according to Desmond. Only 25 percent of families who qualify receive public housing. "The rest are just struggling along in the private market," he said. In this way, evictions "propagate economic disadvantage and social suffering in America's urban centers," he said.

Getting public housing is life-changing for these families, Desmond said. "It's like all of a sudden they can breathe again," he said. When a person only has to pay 30 percent of their income for housing costs, they can afford to go to community college at night, give their kids stability and ultimately get out of poverty.

Another powerful and effective way to fight this problem is providing legal counsel to families served with eviction notices. In New York City courts, just 12 percent of tenants facing eviction have legal representation compared to 97 percent of the landlords, according to Chester Hartman of the Poverty and Race Research Council. In New York City, only 22 percent of represented tenants had final judgements against them compared with 51 percent of tenants without legal representation, according to Hartman.

Free legal assistance is available to low income families in most states through funding from the Legal Services Corporation, a federally funded government agency. Bresin works for the Utah affiliate of this program. Bresin and the team of lawyers who work in his office can help low income people who need legal representation.

"The problem is, most people don't find out about us until it is too late," he said.

email: mwhite@deseretnews.com

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