Editor’s note: This story discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is at risk of self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support at 1-800-273-8255.
Austyn Sorensen reached for the white piece of paper taped to the door of her room inside a shared student apartment.
She had been sleeping and when she came out in her pajamas, it was there under the “417” that indicated her individual space. At first, she couldn’t believe what she was reading. It said she was being evicted. She had six days to gather her things and move out.
Then, she got to the reason why. The apartment manager wrote that she had broken her contract and couldn’t live there anymore.
The breach? Sorensen had “vocalized suicidal tendencies” to her roommates. Apartment management was kicking her out because she was suffering from a mental health crisis.
Now, eight months later, Sorensen is suing the manager, the landlord and the company that owns the student apartments off campus near Utah Valley University for alleged discrimination.
In the filing to U.S. District Court late Tuesday, Sorensen argues they knowingly denied her housing on the basis of a disability — her depression. That violates the federal Fair Housing Act, she contends.
“The Defendants’ actions in doing so were willful, intentional, and taken in disregard of Ms. Sorensen’s federally protected rights,” the lawsuit states.
Sorensen is being represented by the Disability Law Center of Utah. Both she and the attorneys at the center declined to comment Wednesday, saying the lawsuit, which includes her name as the plaintiff, speaks for itself. But they said she was did not object to the use of her name, after previously asking for privacy in connection with her mental health last fall when she was evicted.
Ventana Student Housing, which owns the building, did not respond to a request for comment. Jill Savage, the manager, and Joan and David Hatt, who run Ventana, also did not return calls from The Salt Lake Tribune. They are all named in the suit.
The case originally drew national attention in October when Sorensen, who was 18 years old at the time, spoke out about being kicked out.
At the time, Sorensen told The Tribune: “The landlord is telling me not to live here because I was having suicidal thoughts. That’s not something I can help. And it’s just hurtful.”
She said after seeing the notice, she panicked and immediately started packing up her belongings. “But I was shaking so heavily that I couldn’t move anything,” she recounted.
The notice made her feel worse, she said, as she’d already been struggling with managing her symptoms of depression. She’s moved in with a friend, though, and is currently receiving support. She has continued to stay there while looking for permanent housing.
Sorensen said she has had major depressive disorder and anxiety for the past two years, beginning after her mom died in September 2018 from cancer. She doesn’t have any relationships with her adult relatives, she said. And the stress of school and the isolation with COVID-19, she said, compounded things last fall, shortly after she moved into the apartment and had started classes at UVU.
The lawsuit states that she had planned to harm herself, and she wrote letters saying goodbye to her boyfriend and her sister.
On Oct. 8, Sorensen left the apartment to visit a friend. When she came back, she discovered that one of her three roommates had gone into her room and read the letters, she said.
Three days later, all of the roommates gathered to talk with Sorensen. She told them she was feeling low and suicidal and hoped they might be able to help her move forward. She hadn’t been showing up at work. She wasn’t leaving her room much. And she dropped her classes at UVU.
She felt the roommates brushed her off, Sorensen said at the time, and she said they told her she was being dramatic. She didn’t talk to them much after that and stayed inside her room even more, she said.
Shortly after, on Oct. 13, she found the note on her door. Her roommates had gone to housing management to report her, the lawsuit claims.
The eviction notice, shared with The Tribune, begins by suggesting that the woman violated her lease contract, pointing specifically to two parameters: breaching the “quiet enjoyment of the premises” and threatening “endangerment of human life.”
“We have been made aware that you have vocalized suicidal tendencies which has caused … stress and alarm to your roommates,” the letter added. “At this time, we are choosing to terminate your contract, as explained above. We ask that you take the next few days to move out your belongings and find alternative housing.”
It gave her a final move out date of Oct. 19.
“I was completely shocked,” Sorensen said then. “I just didn’t know what to do.”
The lawsuit states that no one at Ventana ever attempted to talk to Sorensen about what was happening. And when she tried to call them, nobody answered, she said.
The apartment complex exclusively houses students at Utah Valley University. But it is not owned or operated by the school, which doesn’t oversee any student housing, so no one there could help her.
She moved in with a friend, but the filing says that is temporary and she has no place else to go. “Ms. Sorensen was effectively rendered homeless with no familial resources to turn to,” it states.
Nate Crippes, an attorney with the Disability Law Center in Utah previously told The Tribune that he thought Sorensen had a case. The Fair Housing Act protects against discrimination. And that includes someone with a mental illness, he said.
“This just seems particularly egregious,” he added. “You have a person who is literally and clearly going through something to the point where they’re expressing thoughts of suicide. To then turn around and say, ‘I’m going to evict you,’ it’s just a real problem.”
The eviction, the lawsuit notes, has made it even harder for Sorensen to cope, care for herself and pursue a degree at UVU. They’re asking that Ventana be immediately enjoined from denying housing to anyone based on a disability and take “affirmative steps” to get Sorensen back into an apartment.
They’re also requesting that all Ventana employees undergo training “to prevent the reoccurrence of discriminatory housing practices in the future.”
When the case first came up, Sorensen said her biggest fear was that what happened to her might happen to someone else. She wanted to speak up to stop that. She said, “That’s the part that upsets me the most.”
She doesn’t want another student to come home to a white piece of paper taped to their door.