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'I had COVID... lost my job': A look inside Lawrence Township eviction court

Attorneys from legal clinics are now in the courts helping tenants through the legal process and connecting them with much-needed resources.

INDIANAPOLIS — For a few hours Wednesday morning, 13News sat in and listened to dozens of eviction cases at the Lawrence Township small claims court.

In some cases, tenants were almost a year behind on rent and others were just two months late. The biggest issue we discovered was a disconnect between renters and resources.

RELATED: Small claims courts flooded with eviction cases | Judges work to connect tenants, landlords with resources

The court had at least 48 eviction cases on the docket for the day. Due to court orders, we weren’t allowed to bring a camera in the courtroom, but we could sit and observe.  

Afterward, we caught up with one Hoosier who found himself behind on rent and facing eviction. 

“I had COVID. I was down for at least two or three weeks. So, I lost my job and then ended up with another job after I bounced back and healed,” said Darren Stephens.  

The single dad is still trying to catch up on his rent. He said this is the first time he’s been behind. Before Wednesday, he didn’t know he could apply for rental assistance programs in Indianapolis.  

“I didn’t know anything about the ‘Indy Rent’ program until I came here today. So, it really helped. They gave me another chance,” Stephens said.  

That’s the case with a lot of Hoosiers. It’s estimated 93,000 Indiana households are behind on rent and could face eviction, and 83% of them haven’t applied for assistance.  

Attorneys from legal clinics are now in the courts helping tenants through the process.  

“We are here to provide them legal advice, prior to going into the hearing and to connect them to the resources to make sure they can hopefully get those funds and avoid the eviction or possession of their unit,” said Brandon Beeler with Indiana Legal Services.  

During Wednesday’s session, renters also often found themselves alone trying to navigate the legal system against landlord attorneys.  

“Just the basic knowledge of the court process is something tenants come into court without and have no knowledge of. So, they already come to court with a disadvantage,” Beeler said.  

RELATED: Eviction filings spike after federal moratorium ends, funds slow to reach tenants

Judges try to be understanding of this disadvantage and help tenants understand the legal process.  

In Stephens’ case, the judge gave him more time and connected him to valuable resources. He said he is going to work on a payment plan in the next few days before his next hearing in October.  

“They were very understanding. I am feeling good about it,” Stephens said.  

Since January, 1,177 eviction cases have been filed in Lawrence Township and the court has 446 hearings scheduled for September and October.  

On Monday, the state officially launched its new Eviction Task Force, which offers resources to both tenants and landlords. The task force hopes to make the distribution of federal funds “more rapid and effective.”  

People in need of help can contact a number of local legal clinics including:

  • Indianapolis Legal Aid Society: 317-635-9538 
  • Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic: 317-429-4131 
  • Indiana Legal Services: 317-631-9410