Harrison Kelly couldn't understand it: the news accounts of federal marshals working overtime to catch up with a backlog of evictions, the TV footage of distraught families guarding their meager furnishings lest they be stolen off the sidewalk, the sad stories of people behaving as though the inevitable could somehow be avoided. "I kept asking myself, how could a person actually allow himself to get in that position?," Kelly recalls. "Well I understand it now. I'm about to reach that stage myself."

The 40-year-old bachelor has his rent paid for this month on his Southeast apartment, and has put aside most of the money for next month's rent. After that, he says, he just doesn't know. "It's like a death syndrome, a race between getting a job and getting evicted. February may be it for me."

Kelly doesn't know whether he's counted among the city's 35,600 unemployed, since he has already exhausted his jobless benefits and, so far as the unemployment office is concerned, isn't looking for work. "I'm looking, all right," he says. "I've got applications and 171s all over town. But nothing's come up. I just got my telephone bill, and that means another $55 out of the money for next month's rent. Without a phone, nobody would be able to reach me even if they had something."

Kelly hasn't worked in the 18 months since he was dropped from his $12,000-a-year CETA job at -- of all places -- the District's unemployment office. Before that, he worked for an insurance company that moved out of the city, and then as a file clerk for the D.C. Superior Court, and bits and pieces of other jobs, all temporary. "I know there are jobs I am intelligent enough to do," he says. "I'm not dumb. But I haven't had any offers. Something is wrong somewhere. I just don't know how to deal with this situation It's never happened to me before, and that's what's frightening me. I've become antisocial. It disturbs me even to listen to conversations about money."

"I wouldn't do anything . . . illegal, because it's counterproductive. But what can I do?"

Well, what can he do? "People ask me that, and I don't know what to tell them. Most of the jobs I've had, except one sales job, have been with the government, but the government is laying people off. I can type a little, I can do office work, I guess I could learn to do anything. As I said, I'm not dumb. I've had three years of college. . ."

Are there jobs he wouldn't take? "People ask me that, too, and I'm not sure what they mean. Certainly I wouldn't want to prostitute myself. I wouldn't want to work in the sewer, or clean toilets, but I haven't turned anything down. I just haven't had any offers." Kelly says he's "starting to understand how it feels when people try and just can't hang on and throw in the towel. It's extremely frustrating. "Still, my pride won't allow me to be evicted. I mean if I knew it was coming, I'd have to move out on my own."

But move where? "I don't know. People who get set out always go somewhere, don't they? So why don't they go there before they get evicted? I just don't understand how they let that happen, and yet it looks like it's about to happen to me if I don't find something soon. Things are bad here, and if I ever get on my feet I may move away. But how do I get on my feet unless I get a job? Good question, isn't it?"