(Client name has been changed to protect her privacy.)
Traci, a project manager in telecommunications, made plans to move to Arizona to help a family member. She packed up and moved out of her rental home in midtown Omaha, leaving her landlord instructions to keep the deposit.
An accidental cooking fire a few years back had destroyed the kitchen. Traci had been paying for the kitchen repair bills whenever she could – an extra $50 here, an extra $200 there – if luck allowed.
But her landlord had other plans. When it came time to settle the account, the landlord claimed that all of the money that Traci had paid in rent was actually going toward the kitchen repairs. The landlord began the eviction process and a process server left an eviction notice on the door of Traci’s vacated apartment.
She phoned her neighbor back in Omaha to check her mail.
“Hey, you have a court letter on your door,” her neighbor told her.
But when Traci tried to answer the court order, it was too late. She was out of town and didn’t receive the notice on time. She tried to overnight ship to the Douglas County District Court her proof of payments made. She was told the deadline had passed and there was nothing she could do.
Months passed and she returned to Omaha after things didn’t work out for her family in Phoenix. She met another landlord who was renting a house. The landlord told her there was “no way she would ever rent to her” based on the records she found – Traci owed her former landlord a lot of money and had an eviction on her record.
“I said, ‘Excuse me? I’m so confused. I have an eviction that I can probably appeal. I’m not aware of the circumstances behind it, but I don’t owe anybody $8,000.’”
A grim housing situation becomes worse
Traci went to the courthouse seeking an appeal. Again, it was too late. “So I left it alone. There was nothing I could do.”
Time went by. Then it got worse. Her paychecks began to be garnished. Traci felt defeated. “I lost hope. I felt like I can’t move forward because she is going to take my paycheck, and I cannot continue to live and raise children. I was extremely upset. I was very discouraged.”
Next, she called Legal Aid of Nebraska and the operator told her, “Don’t hang up – somebody’s going to take care of you.”
How the Housing Justice Project secures equal justice for all
Traci was assisted by Legal Aid of Nebraska attorney Caitlin Cedfeldt.
“She never made me feel less than,” Traci said. “She was 100 percent there. She listened. She was patient. “There need to be more Caitlins in the world. She didn’t judge my situation. She didn’t make me feel like I owed her anything. She guided me every step.”
Cedfeldt says that when she works with clients, she sees the immediate problem, while keeping an eye on the big picture.
“The immediate problem is that someone is facing imminent homelessness because of a set of facts and the application of laws by the court. The big picture is that there is an affordable housing crisis, rampant system poverty, and a court system that is not built to help tenants and frequently sides against them.”
In the end, Cedfeldt was able to get all charges dropped.
“I feel like she worked from her heart and not just for the job or the check,” Traci said. “She was my angel.”
Homeless during a pandemic: Challenges and risks
During the pandemic, the stakes have been even higher for clients.
“In ordinary circumstances, many clients live paycheck to paycheck, and if too many unexpected financial difficulties come up – lost hours, car breaks down, unexpected funeral costs, illness – then they are at risk of becoming homeless because they cannot pay the rent,” Cedfeldt said.
“With the pandemic, the margins are even slimmer for clients and just one thing going wrong could make them homeless. The risk associated with becoming homeless is also so much higher—if a client moves in with other people, they could risk exposure to COVID-19 – you are six times more likely to get sick if one person in the household gets COVID-19. On top of that, many clients are front-line workers who are at high risk of exposure, or worked for businesses which have had to cut their hours.”
How facing eviction affects parents
“People need to know that help is out there,” Traci said. “You go through a crisis. You give up hope. So many mothers that I know, single mothers in housing programs, they turn to alcohol and drugs because (they think) there is not help out there.”
Even though the government assisted with stimulus relief checks in April 2020 due to the pandemic, the relief fell short for many Americans.
“With the little help that came, we don’t know where to go after it’s gone,” Traci said. “So here we are deciding, do we feed our kids in the moment or do we take this money and pay the bills and not feed our kids? It’s a struggle. It’s a choice that nobody should ever have to make.”
Cedfeldt partners with a team of lawyers and paralegals as part of Legal Aid of Nebraska’s Housing Justice Project, who work to tip the scales toward justice for people facing eviction.
“Scott Mertz and I partner with the newer attorneys to represent clients in court and try to work with clients outside of court,” she said. “When interviewing prospective employees and interns, I tell them that I love my job, and I absolutely mean it.”
Due to COVID-19, Nebraskans like Traci are facing many challenges regarding stimulus payments, evictions and unemployment. Your donation as part of Giving Tuesday helps secure equal justice for Nebraskans of low-income backgrounds. Your support is crucial at this time. Visit www.legalaidofnebraska.org/donate/
Thank you for your help.