This story is the first in a year-long series, called Unlocking Racine, about housing instability in Racine.
RACINE, Wis. — Brandy Tillman, an EMT with a private medical transport service and mother of four children, stood in a Racine County courtroom in July, hoping to explain her way out of being evicted.
But that didn’t happen.
After having surgery for a work-related injury, she struggled to pay the rent on the house she had lived in for five years. She got caught up with the payments over the coming months but was evicted following a five-day notice slipped under her door. In the courtroom, it didn’t matter that Tillman had paid her rent in full. The landlord no longer wanted to pursue tenancy with her, but they did provide a letter of recommendation so that she could find another place.
Even with the letter, that has proven difficult because of the eviction on her record.
“People just never contact me back,” she said. “I didn’t get evicted because I was purposely not trying to pay rent. I got evicted because I had a medical reason for being late.”
After the eviction judgment, Tillman moved in with her mother. Her children now sleep on air mattresses in the living room. Despite having a good job, she can’t find a place that will rent to her.
Her four children are among the 561 students currently experiencing homelessness in the Racine Unified School District since Aug. 1. And over the past several school years, that number has fluctuated between 850 and 1,200 children.
When she and her kids left the apartment, she was honest with them about why they left.
“They’re at the age where they can understand,” she said. “They were upset. They were hurt too. But I told them, ‘Sometimes it’s tough for us to move on from old things, but we need to so that we can have new things.'”
Student homelessness on the rise, school district officials say
The reasons vary for why people become homeless: people lose their homes to foreclosure, get evicted, rents increase to an unmanageable level, have addiction issues, lose a job, or the landlord sells the home hoping to cash in on a lucrative housing market, said Kaylee Cutler, the Families in Transition coordinator for the Racine Unified School District.
“My numbers have been growing the last couple of years,” Cutler said. “But also because COVID skewed those numbers, I would say we’re on track for pre-COVID numbers. Right now, I am at 561. So 561 students have been identified under McKinney-Vento since August 1.”
First enacted in 1987 and expanded in 2001, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act requires that districts take specific actions to help unstably-housed students complete school. Districts must waive enrollment requirements, such as immunization forms, that could keep kids out of the classroom. They must refer families to health care and housing services. And they must provide transportation so children can remain in the school they attended before they became homeless, even if they’re now outside the attendance boundaries.
Families struggle to build normalcy amidst so much chaos. The McKinney-Vento Act seeks to fill that gap by helping students stay at their school, no matter where they live.
“If you’re staying with your grandma, her lease is not going to be in your name,” Cutler said. “So being able to bypass that removes a huge barrier our families face.”
Cutler also provides students with school supplies, hygiene products, and coats and hats during the winter.
When the federal moratorium on evictions lifted on July 1, 2021, this terrified Cutler because she thought they would see more families on the streets.
“But it remained decently steady,” Cutler said. “I don’t think I saw a huge uptick (in the number of students needing services) once that ban was lifted. But ever since the housing market took off, consistently, I am getting families who have been ideal tenants who have paid their rent on time for ten years.”
How the real estate market contributed to a spike in student homelessness
Cutler saw a rise in the number of families who had paid their rent on time, worked and had their landlords tell them they had 28 days to vacate their homes because they were selling the home.
The data underscores what Cutler saw in her caseload.
The number of eviction filings and judgments in Racine County decreased from pre-pandemic levels. According to the Wisconsin Eviction Data Project, most of those evictions happened in the City of Racine.
At the same time, housing sales soared, which led many landlords to sell their rentals. To add fuel to the fire, rents in Racine skyrocketed as the median rent price for a one-bedroom apartment is $749 per month, a 20 percent increase from $624 per month in 2017, according to rentdata.org.
But good luck trying to find a rental for $750 or even under $1,000 per month.
“There is a lot of support available in Racine,” Cutler said. “But we need the actual apartments and houses for these families to go into.”
Families tell Cutler they have housing assistance programs willing to give them $1,000 or $1,200 towards an apartment, but they can’t find one.
“Or if they find something, they have to pay the application fee – only to be turned down constantly,” she said. “So these families are spending hundreds of dollars a month on application fees, just not to get approved.”
What’s more, if those families pay out of pocket to stay at a hotel, they are paying about $1,400 per month.
“They should have a nice, beautiful house to themselves, but they have to pay for hotel rooms,” Cutler said. “And then they get stuck in that cycle… now all the money they are making and earning is going right back into the hotel. So they can’t save up for the down deposit. They can’t pay for anything. And now they’re essentially just stuck at the hotel.”
Identifying homeless, housing unstable students an issue, district officials say
Over the past five years, about 4 to 4.7 percent of the Racine Unified School District student population identified as homeless. Still, the problem goes deeper than that when looking at housing instability.
Housing instability, or housing insecurity, happens when people struggle to pay their rent due to high housing costs relative to their income, poor housing quality, unstable neighborhoods and overcrowding. Those situations don’t often include homelessness.
“Under McKinney Vento, we identify that shared housing aspect,” Cutler said. “HUD does not recognize that as experiencing homelessness. Organizations in our community are HUD-funded. So those families sharing housing often can’t even get resources because they are not homeless. They’re not on the street or in a shelter. Same thing with self-paying hotel families.”
Of the 855 students Cutler’s department served in the 2021-2022 school year, 617 children lived in shared housing, she said.
What’s more, even for those with a place to live, housing costs comprised a larger percentage of their income as their wages did not keep up with the rate of inflation. And once those students qualify for services under the McKinney-Vento Act, they now stay homeless or housing unstable longer because they can’t find an affordable place to live or that will take someone with an eviction on their record.
Data analysis by the Center for Public Integrity shows that 4,394 students, or about 25 percent, of the students enrolled in Racine Unified in the 2019-20 school year were housing cost-burdened families and paid more than 30 percent of their income on housing.
People also don’t understand how the Mckinney-Vento law works and may feel stigmatized by the idea of using services that they believe would benefit people who are worse off. So they don’t report their situations to school officials, Cutler said.
“I have run across families who don’t want to be identified,” she said. “They say, ‘I will get my kid to school. It doesn’t matter. Don’t worry about it.'”
Some families also don’t want to have their names on a list for fear that the district will call child protective services because they are experiencing homelessness.
“We would never make those reports or call (CPS) because if the kids are still being taken care of, there’s no abuse or neglect going on,” Cutler said. “Homelessness and housing instability are not reasons to remove children from homes in Wisconsin. But it is in other states. So I know there’s always that kind of fear.”
What would help solve the problem? The community needs to build more afforable housing, but also look at a process where evictions could be expunged, she said.
“You can go to driving school and get rid of your points and your ticket,” Cutler said. “Maybe you go to a money class or a budgeting class and you learn how to fix the problem and then you can get your eviction expunged. I think that would be fantastic.”
Resources in the City of Racine and Racine County
- If you live on the streets and would like assistance – HOPES Center of Racine, Inc. Street Outreach | Street Outreach Referral Form.
- If you are a veteran and want shelter or would like assistance – the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs Veterans Outreach and Recovery Program.
- If you are experiencing domestic violence, abuse, stalking, or human trafficking – Women’s Resource Center of Racine or Fight to End Exploitation.
- If you need or want other services within Racine City or County – connect with Racine County Here to Help or Racine Network of Care.
More resources for the community
Unlocking Racine is a year-long solutions-based multi-media project which is shedding much-needed light on the housing instability crisis in Racine County. The Racine County Eye, which includes the Kenosha Lens, is committed to serving our local communities with integrity. We are your source for local news that serves our diverse communities. Subscribe today to stay up-to-date with local news.
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