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Montanans with criminal records struggle to secure housing long after their sentences end

Katrina Everhart at the Poverello Center in Missoula, MT.
Elinor Smith
University of Montana School of Journalism
Katrina Everhart at the Poverello Center in Missoula, MT.

Fair housing laws protect many Montanans from discrimination when they’re looking for a place to rent or buy. When it comes to felons, though, there’s nothing preventing landlords from putting them at the bottom of a big pile of applications.

At the start of November of last year, Katrina Everhart was pretty settled into her routine at work. She had recently gotten a job at the Poverello Center, a homeless shelter in Missoula. That all changed, though, when her landlord gave her notice about plans to remodel and increase rent by more than $750. That wasn’t something Everhart could afford.

“We ended up staying in our car for a couple nights, then we stayed with our daughter-in-law, and now I'm staying with my boss.”

When she received that notice, Everhart was living with her husband. He’s currently in jail. Everhart also has a record. About seven years ago, during a time when she was addicted to methamphetamine, Everhart received a felony charge of conspiracy to sell meth. She was sentenced to five years in federal prison and got out in four. She’s been clean since then. Though she’s turned her life around, Everhart is still a felon on paper. That means she has to check ‘yes’ when rental applications ask if she has a record. Everhart had been couch-hopping since January.

“It's really disheartening when you know that when you have to fill out this application, it's like, ‘Are you a felon?’ or in the little small print, it says, ‘We do not rent to felons,’ but you have to try anyways in hopes that hey, you know? But yeah, it's been really, really hard.”

Eight percent of Americans have a felony record, according to a 2017 study from the Department of the Interior.

Montana’s fair housing law prohibits discrimination based on someone’s age, race, familial status, religon, color, sex, or disablity, but it does not protect those with a criminal history. In Missoula, the rental availability is less than 1 percent. It’s beyond a tight market, and landlords can afford to not rent to people like Katrina Everhart.

Jesse Jaeger, the advocacy director at the Poverello Center, brought this up as an issue at a public forum hosted by Engage Missoula, the city’s online hub where Missoulians can comment on projects and problems the city is facing.

“The checkbox on those application forms just creates this situation where landlords are allowed to, or it's easy for them to, screen out kind of willy-nilly without actually getting to know the actual applicant.”

Jaeger would like to see more people, especially lawmakers, advocate to eliminate some of the barriers for people who need to find both rentals and jobs.

Laws against some variation of the felony checkbox have passed in 27 states and Washington, D.C. Oscar Flores is a national organizer at All of Us or None, an organization based in California that advocates for incarcerated people and their families. He has two felony convictions himself, so he understands what’s at stake.

“”We have a lot of detrimental effects. You know, housing, employment. You know, all kinds of disenfranchisement around voting, juries, limited even access to certain jobs because of occupational licenses, and then just the stigma of incarceration.”

Although Montana doesn’t have an All of Us or None branch, there is one in Idaho. Mary Failing started it in 2019 with her friend Roni Ramos for a school project.

“There's definitely, like, a politicized highlight to advocacy, and especially criminal legal reform, a lot of people think like ‘this is a leftist ideal, we need to change these systems,’” Failing said. “No, this is an everybody ideal. This affects everybody, no matter what political party you may align yourself with.”

In 2018, the Human Resource Council in Missoula County attempted to bridge the gap between felons and stable housing. It won a $153,000 grant that focused on writing rental applications that landlords would accept. The grant also seeked to provide proof of rental history as well as money to help cover costs of living. The program identified 88 Missoulians recently released from prison. Out of that 88, 24 signed leases. The program wasn’t renewed, and since then, the market has become quite a bit worse for renters.

Katrina Everhart was finally able to sign a lease after two months of sleeping on friends' couches and considering buying a bus to live in. The search was exhausting and stressful. She eventually signed a lease for a 1,000 square foot two-bedroom sight unseen.

“I'm still a little nervous, because you never know what to expect until I’m finally there. But yeah, I'm, you know, I'm optimistic. You know, don't want to have to do this again.”

The minimum lease at her new place is six months. She’s hoping to be able to stay there for at least a year.

“We're more than just a number; we're more than just our mistakes or our poor choices. I have, you know, worked my butt off to be a better person and to help out and I still feel as though every day I get looked down on for, you know, having a disease of addiction and therefore the felonies that are hindering everything I do.”

This story comes from a reporting partnership between the University of Montana School of Journalism and Montana Public Radio.

Reporting by the University of Montana School of Journalism students was supported by a grant from the Greater Montana Foundation.

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