Shynice Stevens, a 30-year-old single mother of four, thought she was doing what was best for her children.
A bad case of unaddressed mold in her Arlington apartment, she said, forced her to withhold two months of rent payments to pressure her landlord to address the issue. That choice drastically impacted her family’s life.
On May 1, she was evicted. For the next five months, Stevens and her kids — ages 14, 5, 4 and 1 — lived in her car, including during the hottest months of the summer.
Her children are among the more than 125,000 kids estimated to have been evicted annually in Texas, according to new research from Eviction Lab and the U.S. Census Bureau. The average household includes at least one child, and the most common age to experience an eviction is under the age of 18. Stevens worries about the impact the lack of stable housing has had and will have on her children.
In Tarrant County, an estimated 15,000 children were reported to be without stable housing, according to a 2019 report from the Center for Transforming Lives. The nonprofit that helps women and children in poverty has no updated data, however, the issue is evergreen.
Carol Klocek, CEO of the Center for Transforming Lives, said child homelessness and its impact on early development have concerned the agency for a long time.
“It gives me a real pit in my stomach when I think about the kids and I think about what they are going through and how many more children are going through this,” Klocek said.
To a certain extent, Stevens can’t help but blame herself for what happened.
“I honestly just didn’t want my kids to be in that [apartment]. But we were out and had no clue of what’s next. I wish I would have just paid for the mold,” she said.
New data tracks evicted children
Quantitative data about the demographics of evicted families is now available thanks to a collaboration between Eviction Lab and the U.S. Census Bureau.
Carl Gershenson, director at the Eviction Lab, said this is the first time the issue is being tracked with numbers, providing a comprehensive demographic profile of those most impacted by eviction.
“There’s a real difference between knowing [that having] children puts you at risk of eviction and actually having the numbers that show you how strong that relationship is,” Gershenson said. “Seeing that your eviction risk is highest when you’re a child, that’s the time in your life cycle when you’re most likely to experience an eviction. That was really unsettling for me.”
The risk of eviction is even higher for single Black mothers, Gershenson said. Klocek said she also has noticed a higher impact on women of color with children based on the clients who visit the center.
According to Eviction Lab, Texas has the second-highest total number of children who received a filing or are evicted annually in the country, behind Georgia.
Eviction Lab was able to obtain these numbers by comparing 2011 eviction filings with 2010 U.S. Census data, the most recent census data available to the researchers at the time. Gershenson said eviction rates have remained mostly stable across time, and the numbers are still applicable today.
“I should also say we looked in our data for any trends, like, ‘Were any of these demographic trends changing over time?’ and they were very stable, too. So, we really don’t think that the risk profiles that we talked about have changed at all,” Gershenson said.
Another hurdle that has made it difficult to track evicted children is the different definitions set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Each government agency has a unique definition for children who are without stable housing.
HUD notes the first year of life is the most common age to experience homelessness in the U.S. The second most common age is between 2 and 5 years old.
“Children as young as 3, of course, are going to remember that event. Children who are 1 may not remember the event. But it still has an impact on their developing brain and their emotions, directly and indirectly. It’s really scary,” Klocek said.
She said it’s important for eviction courts and landlords to be aware that when they are evicting families, they are also putting infants and toddlers out of a home.
The Center for Transforming Lives was contacted in 2022 by eviction courts to see whether the agency would provide child care for infants and toddlers during the time their parents were in eviction court, Klocek said.
The agency declined and made a point.
“I said that we need for the courts to be very aware of the pain that they’re causing infants and toddlers,” she said. “The children were getting so upset about the eviction and were disruptive in the court. They did not want that pain in the courtroom, but they were willing for that family to experience homelessness, for that child to experience homelessness.”
Lifelong impacts of a traumatic event
It was on a hot summer night that Stevens realized that she and her kids couldn’t continue to live in their car. The next day was the first of the 2023-2024 school year.
“It just broke my heart, because they can’t even stretch out or lay down and get a good night’s rest before school starts tomorrow,” Stevens said.
The single mother reached out to her son’s school for help and was able to check into the Arlington Life Shelter in September. She also began working with the Center for Transforming Lives to find an apartment.
Stevens tried to shield her kids from the eviction they experienced back in May, but three of them were old enough to understand what was happening. The unstable housing situation for the family of five has manifested itself with behavioral issues and some slipping grades. It has most affected her 14-year-old son, Stevens said.
“I just chalked it up to the situation and the environment that we’re in,” Stevens said. “It just puts a lot of strain on you … a lot of not knowing what may be next.”
Research shows that a housing loss of any kind during the first five years of life can increase a person’s likelihood of experiencing homelessness as an adult, Klocek said. An event like eviction can also affect a child’s development and overall health.
“Their brain is much more structured toward survival, fight and flight, rather than being open to learning and open to normal child development,” Klocek said. “It literally reorganizes their brains so the prefrontal cortex does not develop as it should.”
Klocek notes there are long-term implications of eviction for children and their future role and success in society.
“It’s terrible for families. It’s really terrible for our communities. We think about the impact on schools; the instability of those families contributes to problems with the labor market,” Klocek said. “It’s really hard to keep a job if you don’t have a place to live, but a lot of the people are trying to work, even though they’re living in a car or living in their motels, and it’s just incredibly challenging.”
As for Stevens, she’s not giving up hope and continues to dream of having her own space again for her kids. She was recently approved for an apartment.
“Just remembering how we were and the things we used to do. I’m ready to get back to that, like even just cooking a simple meal,” Stevens said. “I just told my son that the first thing I’m going to cook is fried chicken.”
Sandra Sadek is a Report for America corps member, covering growth for the Fort Worth Report. You can contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter @ssadek19.
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