U.S. marshals, their overtime salaries paid by a group of landlords, began evicting scores of tenants throughout Washington yesterday in an unprecedented weekend effort to reduce a backlog of nearly 4,000 eviction cases.
In low-income areas of Northeast and Southeast, where the bulk of yesterday's evictions occurred, the same tableau was seen again and again: sidewalks covered with furniture and clothing, bewildered families taking inventory of their belongings and, in the face of an uncertain future, their lives. In all, 104 families were scheduled for eviction.
"We had no idea they were coming. We don't have anyplace to go," said Delores Thomas, a housewife, who was still in bed with her husband when marshals knocked on the door of their unit at the Parkland Apartments, 3414 18th St. SE.
As their son, Anthony, 8, rummaged through a pile of household goods strewn about the sidewalk, searching for the Darth Vader costume he had got for Halloween, a car passed by with a mattress on top and table legs poking through the windows.
"They got us, too, baby," a tearful woman said to them.
Ten teams of two marshals apiece, each team carrying an eight-man civilian eviction crew, moved meticulously through the streets of the city in black vans and squad cars.
"I don't like setting people out any more than they like getting set out," said one gruff-looking crew member as he let a child's study desk hit the pavement, crack in half and spill crayons onto the street. "But my family just got set out and we need to eat, too." Indeed, all of the movers of one crew said they either had been recently evicted or had no regular job.
"I'm 53 years old, and I've been around long enough to know who gets pushed around in this country," said another member of the eviction crew. "It has happened to me so long I just don't give a damn."
Leaders of various tenants associations around the city expressed outrage at the intensity of the enforcement effort, which in some cases was aimed at deteriorating apartment complexes where tenants have complained that landlords neglect them.
"This is a very dirty thing," said Elaine Johns, president of the Tyler House Tenant Council. Tyler House, at 1200 North Capitol St., lost four tenants to eviction yesterday.
Until now, evictions have been carried out only on weekdays. With the action occurring on a Saturday, tenants and their representatives said they had no course of appeal. "They sneaked and did it on a day when everything was closed," Johns complained.
The city's landlords, acting through the Apartment and Office Building Association, had asked for the Saturday evictions as a way of cutting down on the 4,000-case backlog and worked out an arrangement under which they would pay the marshals $16.50 an hour for their overtime service, according to Anthony J. Furka, U.S. marshal for the District.
Landlords, who once could get evictions within 30 days of receiving the necessary court documents, must now wait two months, an AOBA representative said earlier this month. The backlog stood at 2,000 cases three or four months ago, and then doubled after marshals decided to schedule evictions between noon and 5 p.m., instead of between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., the spokesman said.
The number of evictions sought by landlords has increased dramatically as growing numbers of tenants have fallen behind in their rents because of unemployment. Tenants add that rent increases are also responsible for the delinquencies. Some tenants interviewed acknowledged that they were between a month and five months behind in rent. About 30 evictions are scheduled on an average weekday, Furka said.
Yesterday's actions were designed so that eviction teams could complete an eviction an hour. They did not evict if a tenant had proof that the rent delinquency had been corrected.
"Come on, gimme a break," cried Suzzette Briers after a member of an eviction crew broke the lock on her apartment at 2339 Green St. SE. "I start my new job next week. I can pay on Monday. Here, take a personal check," she pleaded.
As the curtains came down and the carpet was dragged into the stairwell, her 4-year-old son ran to get his playmate and brought him back to the crumbling apartment.
"We're moving again," he said excitedly, apparently unaware of the nature of the departure. His friend promised to come visit him.
Around the apartment complex, as other tenants realized they were not the ones being sought by the marshals' men, people boldly stepped outside to express their displeasure.
"This is a shame," said one woman who admitted that she, too, was behind in her rent and could be evicted any day. "The guy they are moving out now, well, he's a Vietnam veteran. He's a truck driver and he's been looking for a job for months."
"It's Reaganomics," said her neighbor.
"It's the war on the poor," said another.
"And they are using these poor black souls to fight it for them," the first neighbor replied.
One of the eviction team members, who had paused in the stairwell to adjust his gloves, overheard them and turned to tip his hat.
"Only in America," he smiled.