Raw sewage seeped from the ground in the Garrett Park trailer court in St. Mary's County, and one night an opossum clambered up through the rotted floor in a trailer to bare its jagged teeth at Kathie Smith.

But as cold set in, it was the lack of heat in her rented trailer that made the young mother's temperature rise.

With no furnace in the home and the temperature indoors dipping into the twenties, Smith opened her electric stove and turned it on. She did the same with her toaster oven. She set a fire in the fireplace, but warily, for she feared chimney cracks might feed flames to her children's bedroom.

Then she got on the telephone and called the county, the state, local social service agencies -- anyone who might help improve her living conditions.

Nobody could, at least not fast enough. Last weekend, less than a week after the first outsider visited her home, Smith, 21, was evicted, along with her husband, Jeffrey Smith, 25, their 2-year-old son, J.R., their 4-year-old daughter, Kelly Nichole, and their perky mixed-breed dog, Whiskey.

Smith has no doubt why her family ended up with a bright pink eviction notice taped to the front door. "Because of speaking out, I'm gone," she said.

The resident agent who runs Garrett Park for landlord Wayne C. Cook said the family failed to pay rent on the trailer.

Whatever the reason for the eviction, the misery amid the 30-odd trailers at Garrett Park offers a glimpse into a little-examined aspect of Southern Maryland life. The region best known for tidy farms and burgeoning suburbs has another face, one of hard-pressed tenants, unbridled landlords, indifferent officials and rural isolation.

The mix can bring exploitation, say those who work among the region's poor and those who live in St. Mary's County's numerous trailer parks. In 1990, the county had 1,286 rented trailers, more than twice as many as any other Maryland county, according to the U.S. Census.

Smith and her neighbors showed visitors bare electrical wires, rotted walls and floors with holes it would take a beach ball to plug. Resident Theresa Savoy, 37, displayed a window in her trailer that's always open to the weather, its only glass a few shards clinging stubbornly to its frame.

At one edge of the trailer park, freshly turned clay lay over a septic field, evidence of work ordered by health officials who said they found sewage above ground during a Dec. 2 visit. Two days later, the pungent scent of waste still tainted the air.

In cramped driveways, residents tinkered with well-used cars. Children roamed, scuffling with one another and playing with mud and -- briefly -- a jug of gasoline somebody had left lying out. Behind one trailer lay a jumble of rubble and discarded vinyl siding. A chained dog snarled.

"People need to know they do not have to live like this," Smith said. "There's got to be a way out."

But those who struggle to gather $500 -- the monthly rent charged the Smiths -- can find few alternatives, said Robert Tourigny, housing administrator for an anti-poverty agency, the Southern Maryland Tri-County Community Action Committee.

Affordable housing is increasingly scarce, in part because of a local economic boom fueled by high-tech workers flocking to service the newly expanded Navy air base just two miles from Garrett Park, Tourigny said.

"Where can you go and find a place for $500?" he said. "The market is demanding a lot more."

That market operates with little regulation. Unlike many jurisdictions, St. Mary's has no license requirement for rental housing, said Harry Knight, permit coordinator in the Department of Planning and Zoning.

Knight recently ended five years as code coordinator -- the only county worker charged with inspecting rental housing. In that time, he said, he carried out "probably less than five" inspections.

Knight said official action begins -- and usually ends -- with writing a letter to the tenant's landlord. Before taking that step, St. Mary's officials insist that tenants notify their landlord in writing of any deficiencies.

"Before I can get a letter to the landlord he probably reciprocated with a letter to vacate," Knight said. "Most of the landlords don't need a troublesome tenant, because there's plenty of people out there desperate" to find a home.

Once the tenant is gone, the case is closed as far as county officials are concerned, for then they lack a complainant, Knight said.

"I think it's a travesty," Knight said. "We haven't had a lot of direction to vigorously enforce [a housing code] because all too often a landlord is someone who has more clout than a lowly tenant."

Under Maryland law, a landlord may summon a tenant to court five days after rent is late and after four business days may win an eviction order from the court if rent is not paid. Sheriff's deputies may serve the notice immediately.

The Smiths were found in arrears on Nov. 15, according to District Court records. A judge signed their eviction notice 17 days later, on Dec. 2, and it was posted on their door the following day, a Friday. It told them to be out in less than three days, by 8 a.m. Monday.

In St. Mary's County, landlord-tenant cases are heard each Monday. Judges and clerks whisk through a docket that often includes more than 100 petitions seeking rent from tenants in arrears.

Judges usually find for landlords and rarely let tenants assert personal hardship or bad conditions as a defense for not paying rent, said Pat Jackson, chief attorney for the Southern Maryland office of Legal Aid Bureau Inc., which assists the poor.

"Even if you're living in appalling conditions, that's not a defense," Jackson said. She said legal mechanisms exist to compel improvements to dwellings, but the techniques are little known among tenants.

"They don't have very many rights, but they don't know they have any at all," Jackson said.

Smith, the young mother, spent days on the telephone and visiting offices trying to find help. In the end, she said she was surprised by the eviction notice. She said she never was notified of her Nov. 15 court date.

The Smiths are among at least 16 tenants who have been summoned to rent court by Cook Management Corp. since early August. During that time, the company won eviction notices against four tenants from the small trailer park.

Wayne Cook returned telephone calls from The Washington Post while a reporter was not in the office, then did not respond to further calls.

His resident agent, Gerald Skalby, said the Smiths had worked on their trailer in lieu of paying rent for several months but had failed to begin paying rent once the arrangement concluded at the end of October.

On the day after the Smiths' eviction notice arrived, the trailer bore a new, light-blue roof that Jeffrey Smith, a carpenter and part-time oyster shucker, said he put on. He said the work-for-rent agreement extended through November.

"I'm dumb enough not to get it in writing," he said.

Later that night, after Jeffrey took down the outdoor Christmas lights and the couple dismantled their $2 thrift-store Christmas tree, Kathie broke down, weeping, in the bedroom.

The next day, a Sunday, they moved to her mother's place, also in St. Mary's County. But her mother has little room and the family must move again quickly, Kathie Smith said.

"Where am I going to go?" she asked.