CINCINNATI — William Starkey is desperate.
I believe that because he called me and said he was planning to protest outside the Hamilton County courthouse "buck-naked" until he got help for his family.
"I might get shot because I'm black," he said before pleading, "help us — somebody help us!"
Then the phone went dead.
I don't think Starkey actually followed through with the protest. But here's how he got to that point of desperation: Late last year, Starkey and April Riley left the South Fairmount rental home where they had been living with their three kids.
Their landlords had filed an eviction notice against them, saying the couple had not paid rent for September. Starkey said he had paid in cash but never got a receipt. He said the landlords only filed the eviction notice after he and Riley called city inspectors over concerns the house wasn't safe for their kids.
Magistrate Jacqueline Ulreich Purcell didn't evict the couple at their Oct. 2 hearing — saying the landlords couldn't charge rent after the city had found such serious building and health code violations at the property.
But Purcell said the couple had to leave because city officials had deemed the property unsafe.
Even then, Starkey knew that winning in court was no victory for his family. He knew that having the eviction notice — regardless of the magistrate's ruling — would make it difficult for them to rent again.
"It's a revolving door," Starkey told me back in October. "We really didn't win."
It would have been almost impossible to predict just how difficult things would get.
'We're Essentially Homeless'
Ever since the family left the little house in South Fairmount for good, they have been staying with relatives — first with Starkey's sister for a while, then with Riley's parents.
"Nobody will rent to us," Starkey told me recently. "We can't even get into a shelter. We're essentially homeless."
The couple had been evicted one other time before they rented the place in South Fairmount. Riley said that eviction was improper, too, but she told me she doesn't have the $1,000 that a lawyer said she would need to have it removed from her record.
Having just one eviction makes it incredibly difficult for tenants to find a landlord who will rent to them, said Nicholas DiNardo, managing attorney for Legal Aid of Southwest Ohio.
"If you get a couple, then the only people who are going to rent to you are the worst of the worst," DiNardo said.
DiNardo knows that because lawyers at Legal Aid encounter the problem regularly as they represent their low-income clients.
"It's common, and it's gotten worse lately because now anyone with an Internet connection can look this stuff up," he said. "There's not a whole lot you can do about it."
Landlords don't always look at the outcome of an eviction case — just seeing one on a prospective tenant's record is enough to scare them off, DiNardo said.
While it is possible to ask the court to remove the eviction notice information from the Internet, it's not widely used, he said.
The stigma of eviction disproportionately affects families living in poverty because those are the families who don't have a financial margin of error if a car breaks down or a medical bill comes due.
"If they had an emergency, and they don't have any backup, there are going to be evictions where they just couldn't pay the rent," DiNardo said.
That makes evictions one of the many factors that make it difficult for people living in poverty to build better lives for themselves and their families.
"You're basically stuck at that point," DiNardo said. "You're stuck with substandard housing and the landlords who don't do background checks."
'It Shouldn't Be This Hard'
That’s where Starkey and Riley find themselves now.
"I've got $4,500 in my pocket," Starkey told me, adding that he's offered to pay landlords several months of rent in advance to get a place. "I can't even give it away."
Riley said she goes to place after place, pays her $50 application fee only to find out a day or two later that the evictions on her record have knocked her out of the running for an apartment.
The family's caseworker at Hamilton County's Department of Job & Family Services has called places as far north as Dayton and south into Kentucky and can't find anyplace for them to go, Riley said. The caseworker suggested they sign up to get government-subsidized housing. But the wait for that can take two years or more.
"We've lost everything," Riley said. "And now I can't even find a place to live."
Riley said she wants justice. She wants to see her former landlords punished. She and Starkey filed a lawsuit against them soon after that October eviction hearing. But the next hearing in the case is scheduled for late May, and it might not even go to trial until November, Riley said. The judge and lawyers have started talking about a settlement, but Riley and Starkey feel like money won't help them. After all, they have $4,500 now and can't get a place to live.
"People come across struggles all the time," Riley said. "And just because you're struggling a little bit, it shouldn't be this hard to get back on your feet."
The point of this story isn't that all landlords are trying to exploit poor people or that people without a lot of money never do anything wrong that leads to eviction.
But no matter which adults you see as the bad guys in these situations, children often caught in the middle.
It seems like we as a region owe it to those kids to figure out a better way — a way that doesn't leave them bouncing from place to place and wondering where they will sleep tomorrow.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO.