Imagine this: You’re working a low-paying job in the city. Cost of living in the city is too expensive, so you rent a place that’s 30 minutes away. Between gas, food, and the rent, you’re barely scraping by.
One day, your car breaks down. Next you are struggling to get to and from your job that’s a half hour away. You start losing shifts and the money you desperately need to survive. Now you are reading an eviction notice. In what seems like an instant, you are staring into the face of homelessness.
What are you going to do now?
Attorney Heather Abraham has seen this scenario play out all too often. “While working in Washington, D.C., as a staffer on Capitol Hill, I was living in a low-income neighborhood and saw firsthand the struggles people met when facing eviction,” explained Abraham. “That’s when I knew that I wanted to become a housing attorney.”
Abraham works with Legal Services of Northern Michigan (LSNM). LSNM promotes equal access to justice by providing free civil legal services to people living at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty level or who are 60 years or older in northern Michigan.
“While the law guarantees access to legal representation in criminal cases, representation is not guaranteed in civil cases, which can be equally difficult to navigate,” explained Abraham. “Our job is to be a watchdog for the people we serve and empower them to make informed decisions.”
Last year, LSNM received a Cherryland Cares grant to revitalize the Eviction Diversion Program—a partnership between the 86th District Court of Grand Traverse County and local social services agencies. It provides temporary rental and utility assistance for low-income residents during short-term crises such as medical emergencies or the breakdown of a family vehicle. The Cherryland Cares grant funds free, on-site legal advice to low-income tenants facing eviction.
“Imagine homelessness on a continuum,” said Abraham. “By proactively intervening with free legal services to avoid evictions, we have the potential to dramatically decrease the incidence of homelessness in our community.”
Abraham’s efforts have already had a significant impact. In her first year, Abraham has advised or represented approximately 200 clients facing imminent homelessness.
“The commitment and enthusiasm of our community partners and the 86th District Court has been remarkable,” said Abraham. “We all understand that, in the end, everyone benefits from ending needless homelessness,” said Abraham.
An eviction notice doesn’t have to be the beginning of homelessness. Rather, with the support of community servants like Abraham and LSNM, the cycle can be broken before it begins.