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Lawrence Township joins nationwide eviction diversion pilot program

LAWRENCE, Ind. (WISH) — A nationwide judicial group on Wednesday said a local small claims court’s commitment to housing justice helped it land a major grant.

The National Center for State Courts on Wednesday announced roughly a dozen courts nationwide had won grants to implement an experimental eviction diversion program. The Wells Fargo Foundation provided $10 million for the project, of which the Lawrence Township Small Claims Court received nearly $500,000. It’s one of two courts in Indiana selected for the project. Danielle Hirsch, the interim court services director for the National Center for State Courts, said program officials looked for courts with strong community connections.

“Lawrence Township checked all the boxes,” she said. “A really engaged judge in Judge (Kimberly) Bacon and a really supportive court team behind her as well as a number of partners who stand ready to work with this new staff.”

Hirsch said the money will allow the courts to hire facilitators who will work with people facing evictions. She said the facilitators will help determine whether a case needs to go to trial or whether it can be resolved through mediation or other means. The facilitators also will work to connect people who are struggling to make payments with community resources to help fend off landlord-tenant lawsuits in the first place.

According to a report in 2021 by the Indiana University McKinney School of Law, the cities of Indianapolis, Fort Wayne and South Bend rank in the top 20 U.S. cities for evictions.

Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, which tracks eviction data nationwide, has counted more than 37,000 eviction filings in Indianapolis since March 2020. More than 500 of those came in the first half of this past May.

Hirsch said nobody has ever taken the facilitator approach to preventing evictions, though some courts used facilitators during the 2008 housing crisis and kept homeowners off the streets as a result.

“I really hope what comes out of this program is a strong pilot that shows the benefit of placing court facilitators in court,” she said, “and that we can take the lessons learned and take them all over the country.”

Hirsch said the program has four years’ worth of funding, through participating court systems will have to re-apply halfway through. About a dozen courts are taking part nationwide in eight states and the District of Columbia.