With diversion programs on the rise, Berrien County sees fewer evictions

BERRIEN COUNTY — For Emergency Shelter Services workers in Benton Harbor, ending the year was a race to the finish line.

The Eviction Diversion Program kept the already busy ESS staff working even harder to process applications. ESS is the Housing Assessment and Resource Agency for all of Berrien County.

The EDP garnered more than 500 applications through ESS from July to December, when the program ended. Before the program ran out of funds, ESS used $1.2 million to serve 460 applications.

According to ESS and the Berrien County Courts, the hard work paid off. Despite an increase in need for eviction diversion services, 2020 saw fewer evictions than the year before.

According to Carrie Smietanka-Haney, trial court administrator for Berrien County Courts, in 2019 filings for landlord and tenant cases were 2,414. In 2020, they totaled just 1,186. The decrease in court evictions was just over 50-percent from 2019 to 2020.

“Anecdotally, I am aware that there are cases which have gone through the eviction diversion process without having ever been filed with the court,” Smietanka-Haney said.

As city agencies worked with Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Acts funding to help work with rental and utilities assistance, ESS also helped redirect those who did not fall in the qualifications for the limited EDP program to other community resources like the Salvation Army, St. Vincent DePaul and Catholic Charities. ESS staff said this also helped curb the number of evictions in Berrien County in 2020.

“We can see with this particular passing year there was a greater need,” said ESS Shelter Manager Reshella Hawkins. “The EDP was a blessing. We had people who we wouldn’t be able to usually serve. The program opened the door to be able to help a lot of people.”

With the EDP ending with 2020, Hawkins and program supervisor Denessa Driver said they have heard talk from the state of Michigan about another program coming to help people facing evictions. It has not been released, but there are other things residents can do while they wait.

“We’ve been encouraging people to apply for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction moratorium,” Driver said. “That’s one safe guard until the state figures out what they are doing.”
Hawkins said Berrien County residents struggling with precarious housing or homelessness should reach out to The Connection at (269) 277-5055 to get them connected with a case manager and guided to resources.

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