Durham Sheriff shares eviction resources with community

The Triangle Tribune

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Durham Sheriff Clarence Birkhead moderates the panel.Mia Khatib/The Tribune

By Mia Khatib

mia.khatib@triangletribune.com

DURHAM – The Durham County Sheriff’s Office hosted an informational panel and discussion about evictions at the Durham County Library Tuesday night. Gary Chavis, a Legal Aid eviction attorney, and Darrin Corbin, a paralegal at the sheriff’s office and former magistrate, spoke on the panel while Sheriff Clarence Birkhead mediated the event.

The discussion included everything from the steps in the eviction process to where organizations can turn to for financial assistance and when to take action. The eviction process takes approximately 30 days, the panelists said, and once it reaches the sheriff’s desk, there’s not much anyone can do to help.

Birkhead said he hopes landlords and tenants are able to work out their differences before the sheriff is obligated to evict the tenants. “We want to keep as many families in their homes as possible, but my constitutional duty is to serve this process [when mandated by the court,]” he said.

Legal Aid has limited capacity to provide financial support for tenants, said Chavis, but it can offer legal representation, review people’s cases to make sure the process is being followed correctly, and help facilitate landlord-tenant disputes. “Where my organization will be useful is if we can intervene in people's outcomes around [the early steps of the process],” he said.

Tenants should be aware of the resources available to them and seek out help. Legal Aid and other partner organizations are there to help, “but they don’t shop,” said Birkhead. Chavis’ office is on the third floor of the Durham courthouse.

“[This process] is so difficult to navigate,” said Chavis, “It's taken me years to build a practice around how to get through this process and I would love for people to use that… because we can’t really control the rental market, but we can at least make sure our rights are individually abided.”

Corbin said there are many different programs available to help tenants with rental assistance and relief, but they have to be proactive. “If you were in the process or you were trying to help yourself, I’m going to buy you some time,” he said. “If you’re not utilizing your resources [or you wait until the court date comes], there’s not really much I can do for you.”

One audience member said there’s a “disconnect” between the community and information because “if no one ever faces eviction, they’ll never see [Legal Aid.]”

“I know you can’t get out there all the time, but surely take some time… because not everyone can afford the internet,” she said. “You got to get back to the boots on the ground.”

Attendee Emily Wilkins asked if there was a way to get an eviction purged from your record. “It’s just a crime of poverty, it shouldn’t be an indictment for the rest of your lives,” she said.

No one had a straight answer. “This is much bigger than Durham County; it’s much bigger than the state of North Carolina,” Birkhead replied.

Wilkins, a woman of faith, told The Tribune that she came out to learn, support and see how faith organizations can help. “I wrestle with the fact that I have sat in homes of members of the congregation with four bedrooms and it's just a couple, and we have a refugee crisis, and we have a homelessness crisis,” she said. “We just have to show up where people are hurting, and we’re not.”

Community advocate Jackie Wagstaff said the eviction diversion program worsened as it was passed down from the state to the municipality, social services, and, finally, Legal Aid. “Legal Aid doesn't do anything but kick the can down the road for a tenant,” she said. It can take months for an application to be processed when a tenant needs help within 30 days.

Wagstaff told The Tribune that Durham needs to bring in someone that has been part of the community for a long time, that understands the process, and can accompany tenants to court or provide other moral support.

“I believe we need to take people that are willing to do that and pair them up with guys like [Attorney Chavis]... to relay the [process] to people,” she said. “People in positions tend to speak over top of people that don’t understand. You gotta bring it in layman’s terms.”

Mia Khatib, who covers education for the Tribune, is a Report for America corps member.

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