I was two years old the first time my family got evicted. We couldn’t pay our rent, told the landlord that we’d leave and then squatted. Our landlord had every right to remove us. My parents should have paid the rent, or made a plan with our landlord to avoid eviction. But they didn’t. There were four kids in the home — including my oldest brother, who’s autistic and non-verbal, and my newborn baby brother. We had nothing to do with our parents’ choices. But now we were homeless.
My family lost count of all the places we’ve lived. We think it’s about 50. We moved at least 13 times between 1992 and 1996. We didn’t always move because a sheriff evicted us. Usually it was to avoid eviction. We lived at motels because they didn’t require proof of income, and motels could remove us without an eviction. We often had informal agreements without the obligations or protections of a lease. But every time we had to gather up our belongings and pack them into a pickup truck, it felt like an eviction. The stress, the dread, the chaos of living out of boxes and the uncertainty of not knowing where we’d go next.
Millions of Americans face eviction every year. But that statistic doesn’t fully capture the scale of the problem. Millions more are unsheltered or in temporary housing. Most of them are children. According to a new study from the Eviction Lab and reporting from the New York Times, children under 5 make up the largest group of those whose households have had an eviction filed against them. Households with children are more likely to report being behind on rent than households without children.
Evictions are tied to increases in homelessness, hospital visits, reduced earnings and access to credit. These negative impacts last years. My mom left my dad when I was 17, and our lives slowly got more normal. But it took years to feel safe. I used to sleep-walk, knocking on walls and asking if I lived there. I don’t do that anymore, but I do feel a surge of anxiety when I see a moving box.
I’m not a policy expert. I’m a poor kid who got lucky enough to escape housing instability. The only expertise I have is my own experience and the resources I wish my family had access to when I was young.
Tenants facing eviction need access to information about their rights and their options. They need help from legal aid or other housing experts to understand those options and make informed decisions. Poor families are at an enormous disadvantage in court — where 4% of tenants have lawyers and 83% of landlords do. In New York City, where tenants have a right to counsel, 83% of represented renters facing eviction remained in their homes. Other areas with the right to counsel have shown similar promise.
When a family can’t afford rent, they need a little time to land on their feet. They need emergency funds to make ends meet and help relocating to somewhere they can afford long term.
Ultimately, we need enough affordable housing supply to meet the demand — and a housing-first strategy that puts roofs over families.
My younger brother, Kirk — the newborn from my first eviction story — is a speech therapist now and works with children. “Children need a place to feel safe,” he told me, “Introducing unpredictability and instability in the one place they feel safe can fundamentally damage how they see and interact with the world. An eviction may seem like a matter of money and law, but there are young hearts on the other side of those locked doors. I hope that we can have enough compassion to see through their eyes.”
I think that’s what we need more than anything, and before we can solve anything. Compassion.
Ransom Wydner is the vice president of Pro Bono at SixFifty. Ransom lives with his partner, Stephanie, and their dog, Pony. He is a musician by night, and he hopes to never move again.
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