Published May 7th, 2018 at 6:01 AM
It takes two minutes for the woman in the wheelchair to roll in front of Judge R. Wayne Lawson. It only takes another two minutes for her to be legally evicted.
“You have to leave, just not today,” Lawson tells her. The plaintiff’s lawyer asks her to wait for him in the hallway. He still has six more cases to argue.
Jelisa Bernardo, 28, watches all this from the second row of long wooden benches in eviction court. A little boy sits next to her. His nose is runny, and he gets up and down repeatedly from the bench.
“I love you, mama,” says the boy. Bernardo gently shushes him, her fingers tight around a black binder on her lap.
No one else talks, no one removes their winter coat. Courtroom 1 of the Wyandotte County Courthouse is not a place to get comfortable. The court clerk calls out lawyers in the order they arrived. The seventh lawyer is Ralph E. Lewis II. He’s here representing YTV Realty LLC, a Kansas City, Kansas-based company that has filed evictions on two tenants living at the Colony Woods apartment complex.
At 9:23 a.m., Bernardo’s name is called. She takes her son’s hand and walks to the front of the courtroom to stand across from Lewis. The judge asks her if she owes $1,947. When she replies yes, he finds in favor of YTV Realty. Three minutes later, Bernardo is in the hallway waiting for Lewis, not far from the woman in the wheelchair.
“I wish I never moved here,” Bernardo says. “What am I going to do next?”
In eight days, Bernardo will be homeless.
(Wes Mikel and Ryan Hennessy | Flatland)
A day after Bernardo’s court date, she’s sitting in a booth at the McDonald’s at 78th and State Avenue in Kansas City, Kansas, wondering exactly how this all happened. Her 4-year-old son is being watched by family in a nearby set of apartment towers, while her 7-year-old son scrambles around the playset a few feet from her.
Bernardo was born in Chicago but grew up in foster care in West Palm Beach, Florida. By her count, she’s lived in 55 different places. She had a baby at 17 years old. She keeps hoping she’ll get settled long enough for him to come live with her.
Bernardo moved to Independence, Missouri, six years ago, looking to reconnect with her birth mother. That reunion didn’t go the way she envisioned, and Bernardo has been on her own for the better part of five years. A different place for each year she’s lived in Missouri and Kansas.
There was the place where she says she was robbed twice. She believes someone in the complex knew she worked nights and took her laptop, iPhone and purses. There were places with roaches. Places with rats. Places with roaches and rats.
Bernardo has worked in a warehouse, making pizza in a pair of Kansas City restaurants and, most recently, as a security guard.
“I always wanted to be a police officer,” Bernardo says.
She went to school for criminal justice in Florida and attended a semester at Kansas City Community College. But the weekly rent on a hotel and ballooning student loan payments curtailed her dream of getting a degree.
While she likely would have qualified, she never applied for public housing assistance.
“What do I do? Fill out an application and wait for a few years? Where do I go in the meantime?” Bernardo asks.
For a two-bedroom apartment for someone with two young children, a Wyandotte public housing program representative estimated it would take six to eight months for a successful applicant to be placed.
The housing authority has the largest number of rental properties in the county (2,058 units total). It also has an eviction rate that is roughly the same as the county average of just over 3 percent.
Instead of public housing, Bernardo moved into Colony Woods where roughly 1-in-5 tenants were legally evicted in 2016 and 1-in-4 were legally evicted in 2017.
Colony Woods, an apartment complex that sits between Central Avenue and I-70, was supposed to be a fresh start. Bernardo had been homeless for eight months in 2016, living out of her Pontiac. Her sons had been with their father’s relatives in St. Louis.
“I wouldn’t let them be homeless. I can sleep in my car, but not them,” Bernardo says. “I feel like every day it’s like a chunk of my heart is out of me.”
She had found a program through Catholic Charities. It helped single mothers escape homelessness, providing rental assistance and financial counseling classes. Bernardo spent two months looking for an apartment in Kansas City, Kansas. She had an eviction on her record from when she was 19 and living in Florida. That was nine years ago.
“I’ve been running away my whole life,” Bernardo says.
Colony Woods was the first place that was within her budget. It was $600 per month for a two-bedroom — and it would overlook the eviction on her record.
Catholic Charities would cover the first six months of rent. It was a chance to get out of her car and get her boys back with her.
The three of them moved in last May, and her elder son started school nearby.
Colony Woods is an open-ended circle of buildings with 98 units on two floors. The burgundy paint is peeling, and dirt rings the concrete walkways, chasing the grass away like a receding hairline. Wooden posts are missing from the balcony railing, and a bundle of exposed wires are only a few feet to the left of Bernardo’s front door.
Six days after her court date, Bernardo has begun to stack boxes by the front door. A car seat is balanced atop a pile of kids’ clothes.
“I hate this place,” Bernardo says. “But you’ve heard that song by Carrie Underwood, right? This is just my temporary home.”
A pair of white twin beds are in the bedroom off the living room. A Transformers bedsheet hangs over the front window, blocking somebody from looking in the blinds. The brown couch in the front room is where Bernardo sleeps.
“I can keep an eye on my boys if I sleep there,” she explains.
While Bernardo talks, the front door swings open and closed on its own several times. There is a slight gap on the bottom right, and unless the deadbolt is latched, the door tends to swing open when the wind gusts.
One of her neighbors has already been promised Bernardo’s home. The couple just has to pay a $275 transfer fee, and they can move into the two-bedroom unit.
A gray and white cat rubs its side against Bernardo’s legs.
“I told the cat to get out of here, but she kept coming back,” Bernardo says. “She couldn’t make it out there.”
(Wes Mikel and Ryan Hennessy | Flatland)
Bernardo spends most of Thursday, March 1, looking for a job and a new place. She’s got a lead on a cashier position with Goodwill through a friend. If she can get on the payroll, then she can get possibly get an advance to pay for an apartment. She flips through Hot Pads and Craigslist and Zillow, trying to find an available rental.
At 4 p.m., she goes back to her apartment and finds that the locks were changed three hours earlier.
“I knew when I walked up because the lock was a different color,” Bernardo says. She called the sheriff’s office, and “they told me that I go over to the office and request to get my stuff out.”
Bernardo has an overnight babysitting job on Wednesdays and Thursdays, so she has a place for her and the two boys to sleep for the night.
“I don’t want my kids in the system. I’ve been in the system, and I’ve seen it,” Bernardo says.
Bernardo drops her older son off at elementary school. She waits with her younger son to get into the apartment at 9 a.m. A sheriff’s deputy and maintenance worker are there. But the maintenance worker who changed the locks forgot to leave the new keys in the office the previous evening. Another member of the maintenance staff tries to get in through the window but can’t get inside the apartment. The deputy tells Bernardo to come back at noon.
“I hate this,” Bernardo says. “I’ve never had the locks changed on me. I usually just leave.”
Noon comes and goes, but the sheriff’s deputy isn’t around. A train goes slowly by, and the wind blows a Mountain Dew can up South 11th Street. Another maintenance worker, in a paint-splattered black sweatshirt and jeans, emerges from an apartment four doors down from Bernardo’s apartment.
Colony Woods Property Manager Sonya Trujillo checks the mailbox outside the adjacent apartment building.
“How does she get away with this?” Bernardo asks, glancing at Trujillo while she holds for the sheriff’s office. “If I was a cop, I’d be the cop that made a difference.”
“Make sure she doesn’t throw a temper tantrum and break stuff,” Trujillo says as Bernardo’s former apartment is unlocked. The sheriff’s deputy is nowhere to be found.
The office at Colony Woods is a small building off the asphalt parking lot in the center of the complex. A young couple with a baby is inside, waiting on Trujillo to review the lease paperwork. The baby crawls on a brown couch while “The Chew” plays on a nearby television.
“Here’s your key,” Trujillo says to the couple, a few hundred feet from where Bernardo is trying to figure out how to pack up her life. “Welcome.”
Trujillo’s smile fades as she begins to talk about Bernardo as a tenant. Trujillo says the trouble started in September, roughly four months after Bernardo moved in. Trujillo noticed that Bernardo’s partner was keeping clothes at the apartment. She asked Bernardo to put him on the lease, but Trujillo says that Bernardo refused.
Bernardo’s last payment for the unit was in December. She lost her job as a security guard the same month.
“It comes to a point where I have to throw my hands up,” Trujillo says. “I tell them I need payment. I think a regular person would be embarrassed that they’re living in a unit they’re not paying for.”
Trujillo lays out the policies at Colony Woods. The rent is due the first of the month. On the sixth day of the month, if she hasn’t received payment, Trujillo sends a notice saying that the rent is late and that the tenant is being charged a $50 late fee and $10 for each day the rent is late thereafter.
(Wes Mikel and Ryan Hennessy | Flatland)
In the month after a missed payment or the next month, Trujillo will post a three-day notice and file the paperwork to begin an eviction if the tenant is not paying the rent.
She says she still tries to work with tenants. She says she tried to offer Bernardo a payment plan where she paid $150 per week to catch up on back rent, but Bernardo rejected her offer.
“I’ve been trying to work with her since January,” Trujillo says. “But we haven’t talked in nearly two months.”
Trujillo worked for seven years in customer service for a local telecommunications company. In 2013, she became the property manager at Colony Woods.
“I have always wanted to do this. I found something fascinating about leasing agents,” Trujillo says.
The window next to Trujillo’s desk is covered with translucent curtains. She has a view of an asphalt patch where she’s hoping to put a playground. “I’ve been driving around and looking at abandoned schools to see if any of them have a playset available,” Trujillo says. She focuses on the peeling burgundy paint that is flaking off the railings.
“It makes me sad,” Trujillo says of the paint. “I come to work happy, and then I see that.”
She might change the paint color to a leather brown or tan, something roughly the color of the couch she brought to the office from the house she purchased in Independence, Missouri, last November.
Bags of microwave popcorn with Trujillo’s contact information for prospective tenants sit on the corner of her desk. She cuts paper stacks for a St. Patrick’s Day promotion, offering leasing specials.
“Maybe it’s a good thing it worked out this way,” Trujillo says, a small sigh slipping out. “She wants love and attention, and I’m not going to do that.”
The paper cutter slices through another stack.
“Everything comes to an end,” Trujillo says. “This is just the end for her today.”
After two hours in the apartment, Bernardo has managed to fill several boxes. A few pairs of boots sit atop the kids’ clothes.
Bernardo struggles with a cardboard box as her gray and white cat watches from the balcony. A woman in a blue tank top and a man in a fatigue jacket offer to help. After 30 minutes, the woman walks away with a pair of boots slung over her shoulder. The man keeps bringing boxes down, helping in exchange for cigarettes.
“This is all I have saved over 10 months,” Bernardo says. “I’m tired of losing all my stuff and starting over.”
Bernardo thinks she’ll take her cat to the pound, as soon as she knows what to do with what she’s salvaged from her apartment. She’s sad to lose the boys’ pair of twin beds; those will be expensive to replace.
“I’m tough to the bone. I’ll figure it out. I’ve got two and a half hours before my son is out of school,” Bernardo says. “I’m resourceful. I just don’t have any resources.”