Evictions are a growing problem across the country. In his new book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond shows that evictions are more common now than they were at the time of the Great Depression. He details the toll that an eviction takes in destabilizing people’s lives beyond just creating difficulties finding housing in the future. In an interview with Desmond on Talk Poverty Radio, they explain that mothers have higher rates of depression two years after an eviction and note that the number of suicides attributed to eviction or foreclosure doubled from 2005 to 2010. Although our participants benefit from the assistance of subsidized housing, they are vulnerable to eviction because they possess few economic resources and might not have recent experience maintaining housing. For too many people, eviction results in homelessness. That is why it’s essential that we practice eviction prevention in Housing First programs.
Eviction prevention is a case management intervention that incorporates planning with participants to prevent lease violations and advocating with the landlord or property manager to allow staff to work with the participant to curb lease violations when they come up. In addition, case managers can negotiate with landlords to allow people to move out without going through a formal eviction as well as rehouse participants when an eviction does occur.
The threat of eviction is typically triggered by a lease violation. Common lease violations we see in Housing First programs include falling behind in rent payments, having excessive visitors, instigating noise complaints, or engaging in illegal activities such as buying and using drugs. Although many of these issues may be related to alcohol or drug use, Housing First programs should focus on behaviors and consequences, as opposed to dwelling on use itself. One Housing First participant explains how staff worked with them to avoid eviction: “Probably six or seven months after I moved in, I relapsed. So, I went through a period of drug addictions…They actually helped me out. I had fallen behind on rent for a few months, so they gave me the opportunity to make up the rent that I hadn’t paid.” Using a Housing First approach increases flexibility and allows us to be creative in helping people maintain housing. These proactive conversations may include budgeting to make sure the rent is paid or strategizing to buy drugs in a safer way. Despite the fact that a person may be using drugs, these harm reduction strategies can help people to avoid displacement and a return to homelessness. If we believe housing is a human right, we must work to keep people housed even when they struggle with meeting the terms of their lease.
Landlords should be our allies in the fight to end homelessness. At the end of the day, landlords want the same thing that our participants want—a safe, stable home. There are benefits for landlords who work with housing programs. One of the greatest advantages for landlords is increased communication and accountability. By working with case managers, landlords have a contact person who can mediate any problems that arise. Case managers can address landlords’ concerns and offer assurance that problematic behaviors will be addressed. At the same time, case managers thoughtfully relay this information to participants and develop their tenancy skills to increase housing stability. If our advocacy falls short and a landlord is set on evicting a client, we may still be able to negotiate with the landlord and offer to move the person out before a formal eviction takes place. By responding quickly, we can maintain our relationship with the landlord and prevent the participant from being burdened by having an eviction on their record.
If people are going to be evicted, the best practice is to get them housed again as quickly as possible. If we don’t plan to continue working with a participant to rehouse them, it reduces the incentive for them to move out prior to a formal eviction. At our annual Harm Reduction in the House Conference a few years ago, Patt Denning said about rehousing people, “It’s the staff’s job to house people. If someone loses housing, you house them again because that’s what you’re paid to do. But, remember this will go a long way to reducing your harm of burnout.” Denning points out that rehousing is better for the participant and provider alike. Eviction hurts. It hurts our participants and it hurts us because we care about them. Eviction prevention provides us with an intervention to avoid this pain.