Renters are being evicted across Illinois, Ohio and Wisconsin for simply surviving an overdose. Many have not even been charged with a crime. City ordinances that mandate such evictions by landlords are part of a growing trend to punish Midwest overdose survivors—as seen recently with an Indiana prosecutor‘s move to use the successful administration of naloxone, the opioid-overdose reversal medication, as probable cause to gather evidence in support of felony charges.
More than 100 Illinois communities, around 50 Ohio jurisdictions and some Wisconsin localities have adopted “crime-free rental housing” ordiances and/or “criminal activity nuisance ordinances” that hold landlords legally liable for tenants’ and visitors’ alleged drug use, regardless of whether it happens on or off the property.
“If you tell communities that calling for emergency assistance in that situation, it could lead to eviction, you’re essentially telling them to stop calling even in dire circumstances where someone may need life-saving, medical help,” American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Senior Attorney Sandra Park, who’s involved in lawsuits against cities with crime-free housing ordinances, told Illinois Newsroom.
In Granite City in southern Illinois, home to only 28,000 residents, at least 36 people who either survived an overdose or witnessed an overdose have faced eviction between 2014 and 2018 as a result of a policy adopted in 2010, the local newspaper Belleville News Democrat reported in January.
“It is extremely upsetting I may lose the only home/place to go I have, because I called an ambulance to aid someone,” wrote an evicted tenant in a letter appealing his 2016 eviction. He had “nowhere to go,” the letter reads, but he still believes he “did the right thing by calling for help” for his girlfriend who was experiencing a heroin overdose.
Madison County, where Granite City is located, saw record-breaking drug-related deaths year-by-year from 2014—around the time the fentanyl-driven “third wave” of the overdose crisis hit. The number peaked in 2018, with 109 fatalities, and is now on a slight decline, with 85 in 2019.
Overdose survivors and their loved ones were caught in many of the enforcement efforts in Cuyahoga County, Ohio’s second most populous county and home to Cleveland, its biggest city. Out of 236 nuisance letters sent by four Ohio cities between 2013 and 2017, up to 40 percent related to a tenant experiencing an overdose, according to a study by Cleveland State University (CSU) researchers.
One man in Lakewood, Ohio survived two heroin overdoses, in December 2014 and January 2015. Emergency responders successfully revived him with naloxone each time. Law enforcement responders then issued two citations, one of them for “disorderly conduct intoxication.” In February 2015, the city prosecutor’s office informed the man that such behavior qualified him as a “nuisance” in need of “abatement.” As a result, the landlord pursued his eviction, according to a CSU study.
Cuyahoga County saw an all-time high of 727 overdose deaths in 2017—an 117 percent increase from 2013, when the CSU researchers began looking at nuisance letters.
The scale on which Wisconsin cities’ property nuisance policies have impacted overdose survivors is less researched. But one paper by Harvard Law School students found a case where a resident of Neenah, Wisconsin faced eviction because she got medical help for her partner. In October 2012, her boyfriend was revived from a heroin overdose by emergency medical responders; police laid possession charges against him. After he faced additional drug charges four months later, the city police department threatened to designate the apartment as a “nuisance.” The landlord issued an eviction notice in response.
Recently, legal advocates have successfully challenged these ordinances, though not necessarily with regards to their targeting of overdose survivors. In July 2019, the ACLU of Ohio won the suspension of the nuisance policy in the city of Bedford. In October 2019, a Southern Illinois District Court Judge prohibited Granite City from enforcing its crime-free ordinance against a family.
Evicting a tenant on the basis of their surviving an overdose flies in the face of a tried-and-true, evidence-based approach to drug use: Housing First, a model asserting that solving homelessness comes down to simply providing housing regardless of abstinence from illicit drugs and other rules often required by public housing.
One researcher has found a positive relationship between county-level rates of eviction and “opioid mortality” and it is well established that homelessness “significantly” increases the risk of overdose.