Behind five months on her rent, Ophelia Harris was put out in the cold yesterday, a blow as chilling as the arctic winds that whipped through her belongings piled outside behind the Glenarden Apartments on Brightseat Road.
As Prince George's County sheriff's deputies emptied her one-bedroom apartment of furniture and clothes, Harris pleaded with them to take $390 in January rent, the last $90 borrowed yesterday morning from her boss at the University of Maryland, where she has worked as a custodian for 19 years.
Sheriff's deputies told her there was nothing they could do, and less than an hour later, with temperatures in the teens, Harris joined the ranks of the homeless.
"They put my stuff on the street for $390," said Harris, 57, wearing jeans and a thin denim jacket. "They know I don't have any people here, I don't have any place to go. I don't know where I will stay tonight."
Eight times yesterday, Prince George's sheriff's deputies, acting under court order, evicted county families from their homes. Normally, the deputies would have removed from 20 to 30 families in a day, but county officials halted the evictions "until further notice" after receiving inquiries from several news reporters about Harris' case. Also late yesterday, the county hastily arranged for Harris' belongings to be picked up and stored and found her shelter for the night.
County Executive Parris Glendening, who intervened to suspend the evictions, also pledged to "formulate a more humane and logical approach to evictions."
"It is certainly important that the law be carried out and that renters meet their financial obligations," Glendening said. "But I believe we can accomplish this end without physical and mental abuse."
In contrast to the District, where U.S. marshals will not evict tenants if there is more than a 50 percent chance of rain or if the temperature is below 25 degrees, the State of Maryland has no such policy, county officials and advocates for the homeless said. The District also prohibits evictions between Dec. 24 and Jan 1.
Maryland law prohibits evictions only on Sundays and holidays and gives discretion to District Court chief judges to suspend evictions in most other instances. Prince George's and Montgomery sheriff's departments do not evict if it is raining or snowing.
It was neither snowing nor raining when deputies arrived at Harris' door at 9 a.m. yesterday, but a steady stream of frigid air kept temperatures below 22 degrees all day. Harris, who said she has been sick and had problems paying her rent in November and December, asked the Department of Social Services last week for emergency assistance. When she was notified of the eviction on Wednesday, she said, she had raised all but $90 of the rent she owed.
Harris and neighbors who witnessed the eviction said she pleaded with the apartment management and the sheriff's deputies to stop the eviction because she could pay the January rent. A sheriff's department spokeswoman said deputies cannot stop an eviction once it is started unless told to do so by the landlord.
Wayne E. Russell, regional vice president of Housing Resources Management Inc., which manages Glenarden Apartments, said Harris had not paid rent since September and was behind more than $2,000 in her rent. He said Harris was notified last month that she would be evicted, with a note posted on her door on Dec. 31.
"It is unfortunate that an eviction was scheduled for one of the coldest days of the year," Russell said. "Unfortunately, we have no control over when evictions are scheduled."
After her eviction, Harris stayed in the apartment parking lot area. A white face towel was wrapped around her hands to guard them from the numbing cold, but she continued to stand watch over the mattresses, chairs, bundles of clothes and plants tossed on the curb.
Prince George's has the second highest eviction rate in the state next to Baltimore, according to advocates for the homeless and county officials. But in the Washington area, it is last in providing emergency beds for the homeless and last in spending for emergency shelters.
In fiscal 1987, the county, with about 310 homeless on any given night, spent $117,000 on emergency shelter. It has 115 winter shelter beds, including one county-funded shelter for 40 single adults. The county plans to open soon a second shelter to house about 10 homeless families, county officials said.
According to the sheriff's department, the county in 1987 received 115,000 complaints from apartment landlords, and deputies evicted about 3,600 families.
By contrast, Montgomery County received 47,210 complaints from landlords and evicted 1,450 families. With 1,000 homeless on any given day, Montgomery has 152 winter shelter beds and spent $530,000 in fiscal 1987 for shelter.