If You’re Looking To Help Children, Consider Taking On A Housing Law Matter – Above the Law
By the time she was seven years old, she had moved residences and schools a half-dozen times. She and her mother were either escaping from an abusive husband/father or were falling so far behind on their rent that they left or were forced out. Not coincidentally she was performing poorly in school. Anyone looking at the correlation between housing and education would have predicted as much.
For the legal community, this situation presents an oft-overlooked, but meaningful, pro bono opportunity. A little recognized, but obvious, by-product of homelessness or housing instability is the impact on the overall well-being of children, innocent victims of poverty. The most immediate effect often is on that child’s education. The link between housing and schooling needs to be understood by everyone in its path, including legislators, educators and attorneys. Attorneys, especially, by protecting against homelessness and ensuring access to housing, as only lawyers can do, have a unique ability to change the lives of these affected children.
When a child is forced to move and change schools, a path of personal destruction follows like falling dominos. A housing subsidy lost, a parent losing a job, a mother getting sick, a father being violent, an abusive landlord, unsafe living conditions, all lead to an instability whose effects are manifold, leading to silent, unseen resulting obstacles. For the low-income families who face eviction and forced relocation because of these types of misfortunes, a cycle of moving downward ensues. They often are forced to move to lower and lower income neighborhoods, generally with more and more overcrowded and underperforming schools. Teachers with a classroom that has a revolving door of students must spend more time reviewing than teaching. The more students piled into a class, the more difficult the teaching becomes. The more disruption in a child’s life, the more crises swirl around them. More trauma touches their everyday lives, more psychological harm results. Trying to make new friends, moving into new and strange places, sometimes repeatedly, distrusting new environments, having to adjust to changing circumstances, makes for a recipe of disaster.
In his revealing and disturbing book Eviction (affiliate link), Matthew Desmond follows the lives of those whose poverty creates housing instability, providing an inside-out look at the eruption of tragedies that parade through a family’s housing struggles. The Center for Housing Policy goes one step further, expressly examining the relationship between housing and educational performance on impacted children. Researching the effect of the loss of a housing subsidy, an eviction, a foreclosure, and the way these factors contribute to concentrated areas of poverty, an escape from slum housing conditions, moving away from neighborhoods of greater opportunity, losing better educational options, and crumbling stability, the Center has found, unsurprisingly and understandably, a significant diminishment in the school performance of affected children. The availability of affordable housing cuts incidents of homelessness, results in lesser policing and emergency room costs, cuts school absenteeism, improves children’s health, and more. But, as these works demonstrate, available, affordable housing also directly gives children a chance to climb out of cycles of poverty by enhancing their educational opportunities, an often overlooked, but life-altering, benefit.
Creating stability for these children is critical. Lawyers around the country are working, underfunded and unrecognized though they may be, to provide safe haven wherever possible. By way of example, in Atlanta, the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation has a program that focuses on particularly in-need schools, offering free legal representation to students and their families. They have succeeded in stopping unjust evictions, forcing the improvement of housing conditions, securing medical care for children who need it to stay focused, and offering other similar services, resulting in fewer evictions, fewer moves and more stability. As a direct result, young children are doing better in school. It is a pretty simple calculus.
Other programs around the country offer housing and public benefits assistance to survivors of domestic violence and their children. The Children’s Law Center, the Alliance for Children’s Rights, the Children’s Defense Fund, Child Justice, the Children’s Law Project, Advocates for Children, and so many other heroic legal aid organizations in so many communities are fighting for children’s stability in a myriad of ways. All consider themselves successful if they can keep kids in school, the same school, improving their educational performance just through care and stability. The families then have a chance to build on that foundation and create lives of greater opportunity.
In all of our cities there are organizations doing this work, helping these children. Stand up, lawyers, these are children calling for you and you are the only ones who can help this little seen, continuing tragic drama. When you are looking for meaningful pro bono opportunities, think about the kids who can benefit most from your expertise and your heart. At first blush, it may not seem obvious that being a pro bono attorney working on a housing case can have such a profound impact on a child’s education, and future, but it will become clear as soon as you get involved. Please do.
David A. Lash serves as Managing Counsel for Pro Bono and Public Interest Services at O’Melveny & Myers LLP. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed are his alone.