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Eviction Prevention: An Important Part of Homeless Advocacy

Friday, May 16, 2003

  • By: Teresa Lynn Friend, Yvonne Mere, and Tiela Chalmers
  • Organization: Teresa Lynn Friend, Yvonne Mere, and Tiela Chalmers
• An eighty-five-year-old woman who moved into her apartment in 1959, evicted because she can no longer remember to write her rent check on time

• A mother of five who has lived in her apartment complex her entire life, given an eviction notice because her CalWORKS check was lost in the mail

• An agoraphobic man who was too disabled to leave his apartment for four years, evicted because he was unable to appear at a court hearing

These were all clients of the Homeless Advocacy Project (HAP) who faced eviction proceedings in 2002. Each year, thousands of low-income residents are evicted in San Francisco and few of them are fortunate enough to receive legal representation. These include people who suffer from disabilities, families with small children, and non-English speaking immigrants, all of whom find themselves in the legal whirlwind of an unlawful detainer proceeding.

Of course, some people who are served with eviction papers have in fact breached an obligation to their landlord - but they are still entitled to due process in the courts and assistance in negotiating fair terms for their departure, something low-income people often have trouble obtaining. And in fact, many others have meritorious defenses, but cannot afford legal counsel to assert those defenses. And the cost of not having access to that due process, and to asserting an appropriate legal defense, can be very high indeed.

Eviction is often the final step into homelessness. An individual is unlikely to be able to find a single room today for less than $600 per month. Since welfare pays less than $400 per month, an individual on welfare who is evicted from a rent-controlled apartment is most certainly going to become homeless. The math for families is similar. Moving out of San Francisco often is not feasible because it, too, costs money, and often means leaving behind family, jobs, the children's school, and other support structures.

For these reasons, in addition to serving clients who are already homeless, HAP plays a critical role in addressing the eviction crisis. HAP collaborates with other legal service providers, social service agencies, and pro per litigants groups to coordinate and address the critical need for attorney involvement and representation in many of these cases. HAP volunteer and staff attorneys provide representation to clients. They negotiate with landlords, write and argue motions, take and defend depositions, prepare and answer discovery, and represent clients at trial when necessary.

HAP has focused specifically, and uniquely, on two particular circumstances. The first is when clients have already technically lost their cases by failing to respond to the eviction proceeding. Often, clients have defaulted because they were never properly served with the action, or they are too disabled to understand how to respond. Even in this circumstance, quick legal intervention can, and does, save the clients' housing.

HAP has also taken a very active role in helping clients who have serious mental disabilities obtain the reasonable accommodations they need, and are legally entitled to, to retain their housing. This includes individuals who "hoard" possessions, or whose paranoia leads them to refuse required inspections, or whose behavior might make other tenants uncomfortable. Using a holistic approach to advocacy, HAP staff and volunteers work to get landlords to provide the legal accommodations needed by tenants, while simultaneously working with clients to address psychological and medical issues that are interfering with their ability to maintain their tenancy. One exciting aspect of this work has been training managers and desk clerks in Single Room Occupancy Hotels on the application of disability rights laws to their premises, working with them to find solutions that can keep these vulnerable clients housed.

Eviction prevention is a very important part of the work of the Homeless Advocacy Project, because preventing homelessness in the first place is, of course, the best solution to the problem of homelessness.
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