Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.
GRANITE CITY — A 27-year-old man called 911 to send an ambulance to his home when his girlfriend passed out.
He didn’t know what was wrong but told the dispatcher it could be an overdose.
About a month later, he received a letter saying the city wanted his landlord to evict him.
In Granite City, renters can be kicked out after calling for help for someone overdosing on drugs because of the city’s crime-free housing ordinance. Even if no one is arrested or charged with a crime, the drug use breaks Granite City’s rules for renters.
“I really do regret many of the choices of my life, but it is extremely upsetting I may lose the only home/place to go I have, because I called an ambulance to aid someone,” the man told the city in a letter appealing his 2016 eviction.
He was one of at least 36 tenants to face eviction after an overdose with no criminal charges filed between 2014 and 2018, a Belleville News-Democrat investigation found.
Granite City is located in a county that sees a record number of overdose deaths year after year, which local leaders say is a symptom of the opioid epidemic. There were 109 drug-related deaths in Madison County in 2018, topping the previous high of 91 deaths in 2014, according to the coroner’s office. Statistics for 2019 aren’t yet available.
Opiates like heroin and fentanyl were the reason for most of the overdoses in Granite City’s crime-free housing violations.
And when charges were filed against people accused of breaking the city’s rules from 2014 to 2018, the most common criminal convictions were related to drugs. Stealing or trespassing was the next most common type of conviction, which Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons said can also be traced back to addiction.
“The ripple effect of addiction is people stealing to feed the addiction,” Gibbons told the BND in 2016. “There is a substantial tie between theft and property crimes because of the heroin problem.”
Vickie Navarrete, a property manager in Granite City, said drug addiction has worsened since the nation’s first crime-free housing policies were written in the ’90s, with the rise of opioid prescriptions. She thinks the policies could be improved by updating the rules around drugs, enforcing an eviction only if it’s an “ongoing problem.”
“I wouldn’t want to live near a drug house, and there’s a difference between a drug house and someone overdosing on drugs,” Navarrete said.
Granite City officials declined to be interviewed because of two ongoing civil rights lawsuits over its enforcement of the crime-free housing ordinance.
Municipalities have already been forced to change their policies for renters because lawmakers realized the rules were displacing people who called 911 for help for another reason. Five years ago, the law changed in Illinois to include protections for victims of domestic violence and people with disabilities, who used to be evicted under crime-free housing ordinances if police were called to their homes multiple times. There is nothing in the law about overdoses.
Malissa Gray, who has been a landlord in Granite City for two decades, said she wouldn’t have a problem evicting someone after an overdose because she doesn’t want drug activity on her properties.
The 27-year-old man had asked the city to reconsider his eviction, explaining that he was seeking help through a rehab facility three nights a week. But when he didn’t show up for a hearing in the appeal process, there was a default decision to evict him. The BND isn’t naming the man because he wasn’t criminally charged, and efforts to reach him were unsuccessful.
“I have nowhere to go,” the man wrote to Granite City. “The family I was close with has passed. I’m scared of being in that situation with the depression. I’m afraid of myself and not having anyone around. I did the right thing by calling for help I believe.”
There wasn’t an eviction case for him in court. Landlords and tenants who spoke to the BND said many people leave their homes after they get a letter from police about a crime-free housing violation, but before their landlords start the process to kick them out, to avoid having an eviction on their record.
“I want a normal life,” he wrote. “If I lose it all after bettering myself, I worry for my future.”
Lexi Cortes covers government accountability for the Belleville News-Democrat, holding officials and institutions accountable and tracking how taxpayer money is spent.
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