Determined to stabilize her family, Sheri Austin worked with Justice in the Schools after she and her children were threatened with eviction. When her case came up on the landlord-tenant docket in circuit court, attorney Josh Murphy with Legal Aid of Western Missouri provided the legal support she needed. "I went to the courthouse and he was there," Austin said. "He was like, ‘I got this.’"
In KC, 25% of homeowners and 50% of renters spend more than 30% of their income just to stay in their homes. Hundreds of families are living on the brink of homelessness.
Sherie Austin, who has two elementary-age children, received an eviction notice last March.
She’d been renting a house under the Housing Authority of Kansas City’s Section 8 program. But, after the property owner failed multiple inspections, housing officials withheld rent payments. The landlord moved to evict Austin.
"I was scared," she said. "I can’t have an eviction in my name. That’s going to be hard on me getting a new apartment."
Situations like hers are increasingly becoming a focus for educators and others around Kansas City, as the community becomes more aware of the harm that frequent moves and housing instability causes to students, families, and schools.
Research unveiled at a "mobility summit" in 2015 showed that a fifth of students in Missouri school districts in the Kansas City area move at least once during the school year, and students who move have poorer attendance and lower academic achievement than classmates who remain in the same class.
A more recent study by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, commissioned by the Kauffman Foundation, focuses on Kansas City Public Schools and charter schools within the district’s boundaries. It found that students in the system change schools at higher rates than the region at large. About half of students leave the school district entirely at some point between kindergarten and 12th grade.
Stephen Williams, lead litigator for the Kansas City Public Schools, has long been concerned about students forced to move for traumatic reasons such as evictions and violence in their homes. He knew cities such as Atlanta and Los Angeles have school-based legal teams to help families deal with crises.
Williams reached out to Legal Aid of Western Missouri.
"We really had the housing crisis on our minds," said Alicia Johnson, deputy executive director.
Legal Aid and Williams made a case to SchoolSmartKC, which works to raise achievement levels of students who attend public K-12 schools within the boundaries of Kansas City Public Schools. The nonprofit group, which is supported in part by the Kauffman Foundation, came through with $87,000 worth of funding. The Kansas City Health Department stepped up as a partner with an additional $50,000 in funding.
Justice in the Schools had its start.
The project is based in a classroom at Central Academy of Excellence, where lawyer Josh Murphy and paralegal Cori Smith meet with families who qualify for Legal Aid from any school in the district.
"If a family is experiencing an issue having an adverse impact on their stability, we try to help," Murphy said.
It was a Housing Authority caseworker who connected Sherie Austin with Justice in the Schools after she and her children were threatened with eviction. Murphy represented her when her case came up on the landlord-tenant docket in Jackson County Circuit Court.
"I went to the courthouse and he was there," Austin said. "He was like, 'I got this.'"
A judge denied the landlord’s request for an eviction judgement against Austin.
Multiple efforts in the Kansas City region are now directed at helping families avoid disruptive moves.
Austin now lives in a different public housing unit and is hoping her children can remain in the elementary schools they attended last year. "I would hate for them to have to move and not see their friends anymore," she said.
At the very least, Murphy’s legal representation kept her from the spiral of homelessness that often happens with an eviction.
Kansas City Public Schools data shows that up to 40% of school-year moves are caused by evictions and other housing crises, Williams said.
Working with the Kansas City Eviction Project, the school district can now access public data that alerts them to eviction notices filed against parents of district students. The staff at Justice in the Schools attempts to contact parents to see if they can help.
Justice in the Schools has helped more than 100 clients so far, but there is still work to do to increase awareness of the service and to ease the stigma of asking for help.
"A lot of parents still aren’t very keen on letting us know when something is wrong," Williams said. "By the time we’re able to figure out what’s going on we’re pretty far down the line."
Earlier intervention is also the aim of the Family Stability Initiative, a national effort by Siemer Institute for Family Stability in Columbus, Ohio. Caseworkers at social service agencies work extensively with selected families specifically to prevent school moves.
That could mean anything from emergency financial assistance to helping parents improve their own educational credentials and find better-paying jobs, said Jim MacDonald, chief community investment officer for the United Way of Greater Kansas City, which supervises the initiative locally.
The initiative has worked with families in Kansas City Public Schools and the Independence School District since 2014. Last fall, it added the Shawnee Mission School District.
Of 244 families who participated last year, 92% avoided a school-year move. But the work is difficult, MacDonald said.
"We’re hearing from caseworkers that it’s getting harder to help families find affordable housing," he said.
In the Kansas City area, nearly a quarter of homeowners and half of renters spend more than 30% of their income just to stay in their homes. That means hundreds of families live on the brink of homelessness.