New program aims to bolster eviction prevention for criminal defense clients

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Public defenders with the Neighborhood Defender Service and other organizations march in Detroit on June 8, 2020, to demand changes to the criminal legal system. (Provided by Neighborhood Defender Service)

A public defender office in Wayne County is adding to its roster of services a new program to help criminal defense clients avoid eviction. 

The Neighborhood Defender Service of Detroit announced the launch of its Eviction Defense Practice slated to begin this fall, as housing assistance in the COVID-19 pandemic remains a top need. The goal is to help people who can’t afford legal services to fight eviction, right alongside criminal defense. 

NDS has found that its clients face housing instability and need comprehensive support, Kristine Longstreet, interim managing director of NDS Detroit, said. 

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“It was created to stop homelessness, to provide equity to people facing eviction within the criminal justice system,” she said. 

The program will begin taking clients in September. At first, the service will be for NDS criminal defense clients, Longstreet said. However, the office aims to eventually open up the program to the broader community though a date for expansion has not been set. NDS estimates it can help up to 100 clients with this service when it launches later this year, Longstreet said. 

“We’ll go to court with clients, we’ll be available to negotiate with landlords, and if necessary, file responsive pleadings,” she said. “It’s a holistic housing defense practice, so anything that is related to potential eviction or even impacts the client in terms of their housing and their stability.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated housing insecurity, pushing Congress to dole out billions of dollars in rent aid dollars to stave off a wave of evictions. 

A federal moratorium on some evictions is expected to end at the end of June, as states work to distribute federal rent aid money to keep people in their homes, though that process has been sluggish. 

In Michigan, more than a year into the pandemic, rent assistance remains a persistent need.  The United Way’s 211 service dashboard reports that it’s one of the top two COVID-19-related needs for which people call the service.  

More than 82,000 people in Michigan said that eviction or foreclosure is “either very likely or somewhat likely” in the next two months, according to the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey from May 26 to June 7. 

NDS says eviction concerns can be exacerbated for those involved in the criminal legal system. 

“People have to make this calculation of do I pay the bond, or do I pay the rent,” Longstreet said. 

NDS joins other nonprofits in the area offering housing support, including Lakeshore Legal Aid, United Community Housing Coalition and Michigan Legal Services.

The public defender office began its work in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood in 1990. The Detroit office opened in 2019 to improve Wayne County’s public defense system.

NDS’s work is supported by the McGregor Fund, the Michigan Justice Fund, the TCF Foundation and PNC Foundation. Earlier this month, the office received a $200,000 grant from the Michigan Justice Fund — formed in 2020 to support groups assisting people affected by the criminal justice system — to boost eviction and housing defense. 

Last summer, the Neighborhood Defender Service of Detroit announced a community intake program in Wayne County for people who can’t afford an attorney to get legal help before their first day in court.

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