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'Everyone struggles': Heading off evictions in Lawrence Township court

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Posted at 7:10 PM, Mar 07, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-08 12:11:33-05

INDIANAPOLIS — Jaimie Ripberger and Karley Markland say they were $32 short on their rent and now they are being evicted.

“We're not the only people that struggle, everyone hits struggles in their life,” Ripberger said. “It's hard nowadays with financials and responsibilities and stuff like that."

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Karley Markland, left, and Jaimie Ripberger say they were $32 short on their rent and now they are being evicted. The couple was in court this week in Lawrence Township.

Eviction diversion

Nearly 73,000 evictions were filed in Indiana courts last year. About a third of those cases were filed in Marion County, according to the Eviction Lab, a non-profit that tracks evictions across the country.

Each eviction threatens to cast some families into homelessness, but the Lawrence Township Small Claims Court's Eviction Diversion Initiative aims to change that.

"It speaks for itself, eviction diversion," Lawrence Township Judge Kimberly Bacon said. "We want to divert evictions at all costs possible."

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Lawrence Township Judge Kimberly Bacon

Bacon’s court offers a range of help to tenants.

There are lawyers here from Indiana Legal Services sitting at tables in the township office and advising tenants on their rights. The legal help is funded by grant money so the clients pay nothing.

"Without an advocate beside them, and with the landlord having a very experienced attorney, the hearings go very quickly," said Susan Simcox, an attorney with the Tenant Advocacy Project. "Judges are only looking for a few key items to see if someone is, in fact, behind on their rent and the landlord gets their property back."

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Susan Simcox

For the tenants who show up to court, hearings take about 10 minutes or less. They often end with the judge setting an eviction date.

But here in Bacon's court, staff works to find a "soft landing" for folks so they will have someplace to live.

"We recognize that going through the process of an eviction was something that most people didn't understand," Bacon said. "We thought it was important to start bringing in resources and creating a one-stop shop for people to have access to those resources."

The court uses grants to pay for a staff member they call a "navigator," who connects tenants to resources and housing options.

"This type of position is something that's in your heart," the court's housing navigator Cheryl Johnson said. "You have to have empathy. You have to hear, you have to listen and you have to be able to help,"

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Cheryl Johnson

Johnson said she's part psychologist, part therapist and part social worker. She said she helps tenants set up a budget and shows them how much of their income they ought to be spending on housing.

"A lot of the tenants, they live above their means," Johnson said. "So you may have to show them what they can and can't do."

Emotions are raw for tenants who are getting evicted.

"I try to take the stress away," Johnson said. "They cry to me."

Resolution without eviction

Patrick Chavis IV is the court's facilitator. He's a mediator, of sorts, who sits down with landlords and tenants to try to reach a resolution outside of court.

The high eviction rate is a symptom of a shortage in affordable housing, Chavis said. Rents, he said, are increasing faster than paychecks.

"Most of the housing that you built around the country, including in Indianapolis, is high-end housing," Chavis said. "People's incomes aren't going high enough, quickly enough."

Chavis said the best win for this court is when it helps a struggling family become stable and self-sufficient enough to pay their back rent and stay in their current home.

"Ultimately, we're avoiding evictions to move families forward," Chavis said. "We're in Lawrence, we love for people to stay in Lawrence. We want your kids to be able to finish their education in Lawrence."

Clearing eviction records

Judge Bacon said evictions can keep families locked in a cycle of poverty.

"The consequences of becoming evicted are wide ranging," Bacon said. "Now they're getting charged higher rates of rent, they're getting charged double deposits, and it makes it very difficult for them to recover and get back on their feet."

That's why, when the case is over and the bills are paid, folks in Bacon's court help tenants get the eviction records expunged so it won't show up on a background check.

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Jaimie Ripberger, left, and Karley Markland sit at the defendant's table in Lawrence Township Small Claims Court.

$32 short

Markland and Ripberger say their problems started when Markland's temp job didn't pay him for three weeks of work.

They said they got a money order for their rent, but it was short $32 and the manager refused to take it.

Weeks passed and the late fees and missed rent payments piled up. The couple now owes more than $5,000, their property manager told the court. WRTV reached out to the lawyer for the couple's apartment manager, but he did not return messages.

Judge Bacon ordered Markland and Ripberger to pay everything they owe by March 27 or be evicted.

They told WRTV they hope to move out before then.

"I'd rather live on the streets," Markland said.

Contact WRTV reporter Vic Ryckaert at victor.ryckaert@wrtv.com or on X/Twitter: @vicryc.