PHOENIX — The city’s last eviction moratorium of the pandemic had expired and the rent forgiveness program was running out of money, so Lennie McCloskey changed into his bulletproof vest and headed out to work. He climbed into his truck and counted through his daily stack of eviction orders. “Fifteen, sixteen — jeez Louise,” he said as he stacked them on the passenger seat. He strapped an extra magazine of ammunition to his belt and picked up his radio to call dispatch.
“Constable 33, heading out,” he said. “Looks like a busy day.”
“Okay,” the dispatcher said. “Guess it’s back to business as usual.”
Nobody in Phoenix was better or more practiced at the business of eviction than Lennie, who had personally removed more than 20,000 Arizonans from their homes during the past two decades as the area’s longest-serving elected constable. “Lock-’em-out Lennie,” colleagues occasionally called him, because the 65-year-old former judo champion was capable of coaxing tenants out of their homes with subtle intimidation or with grandfatherly kindness. He arrived at each apartment with treats to pacify dogs and stickers to give children. The tenants he ushered outside each day into their first moments of homelessness were often inconsolable, or defiant, or suicidal, or mentally ill, or violent and aggressive, but Lennie was calm. “You have to take your own emotions out of it,” he’d told colleagues during one national training. “It’s our job to carry out the court order.”
Now he looked at the first address in his pile and navigated by memory toward a low-income apartment complex on the outskirts of Phoenix. There were 25 other constables across Maricopa County who spent their days carrying out evictions, but few areas were as busy as Lennie’s district, a six-by-six-mile grid of discount shopping centers and faded stucco apartments that catered to working-class families. The average rent had gone up by 40 percent since the beginning of the pandemic, and now some of the apartment complexes had wait lists and new names like Canyon Oasis, Chateau Gardens, Desert Lakes and Paradise Palms. Lennie pulled up to the leasing office of a 300-unit building and carried his stack of eviction orders inside to the property manager.
“Looks like you’re getting rid of four here today?” he said.
“Should be five,” the property manager told him. “Moratorium’s over, but nobody wants to pay.”
“Well, some might want to,” Lennie said.
She shrugged. “They didn't, and I got a list of new people ready to write checks.”
“Understood,” Lennie said, and she pointed him toward the first apartment on his list, a basement unit next to an empty swimming pool. He put on his heavy-duty gloves, felt for his holstered firearm and knocked on the door. “Hello! Maricopa County constable,” he said. Inside he could hear whispering, a dog barking, and then silence.
He leaned against the door and listened to the sound of footsteps shuffling across the floor. For much of the past 20 months, Lennie had been working to keep people in their homes during the pandemic, brokering deals between landlords and tenants and connecting both sides with federal assistance programs during the moratorium, but lately he was back to doing several dozen evictions each week. It wasn’t yet the post-pandemic tsunami of evictions that some had predicted but rather a return to normal — except normal seemed different to Lennie now, more relentless and unpredictable. Landlords acted increasingly impatient after months of falling behind on their collections. Tenants were more resistant to leaving their homes after months of government assistance. And Lennie could feel his own behavior shifting, too, in ways he was still trying to understand. “It’s not like I’ve gone soft, but maybe a little bit more lenient,” he said. “More compassionate or understanding.”
He waited at the entryway for a few more seconds, took out his baton, and started banging on the door.
“Hello!” he shouted. “Maricopa County peace officer! Open up now!”
Lennie had done more than 300 evictions since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s federal moratorium expired in early August, and during that time he’d given up on predicting who might come to the door. In the past several months, he’d evicted a 93-year-old from a retirement facility, a group of drug addicts living in an apartment cluttered with bowls of counterfeit cash, a man claiming to be a “sovereign citizen” above the law who barricaded himself inside the apartment, a laid-off restaurant worker, a schizophrenic, a hoarder, a recent Somali refugee, a man with a pet reindeer, a woman who tried hiding inside her dresser cabinet, and six families living in a two-bedroom apartment subdivided by drapes and shower curtains.
But no matter who he found waiting inside, Lennie’s job remained the same: to search the home, force everyone out and change the locks — all within a government-recommended time of about 10 minutes.
Now the apartment door swung open in front of him, and this time what Lennie saw was a shirtless, middle-aged man holding a half-eaten bowl of cereal. The dark apartment behind him was cluttered with cardboard boxes, broken furniture and open piles of trash. “Can I help you?” the man asked.
“Good morning,” Lennie said. “I’m here because I have a court order that says by law I need to evict you out of here.”
The man glanced at Lennie’s badge and then down at his gun. “Uh-huh. Okay,” he said. He took a few bites of cereal while Lennie waited.
“Sorry, but we don’t have much time,” Lennie said.
“Oh, you mean I’m getting evicted today?” the man said. “Right now?”
Lennie nodded. “You can make an appointment with the landlord to come get your things later, but we only have a few minutes before we change the locks. Grab any essentials you can’t live without.”
The tenant stepped into the living room, and Lennie followed him inside to search the apartment. The ceiling was covered with graffiti. The plaster walls were pockmarked with large dents and holes. A woman was hiding behind the bathroom door, and she came out as Lennie walked by. “Hello, ma’am,” he said, and she scowled back at him.
“Just the essentials,” Lennie repeated. “Medications. Pets. Walking shoes. Photo albums. Car keys. A change of clothes.”
The tenants began stuffing T-shirts into a backpack. Lennie checked his watch as the building’s maintenance worker started to change the locks. “We about ready?” Lennie asked the tenants a few moments later, and when nobody answered he tried again. “Time to wrap up,” he said, and eventually the tenants walked out of the apartment with the backpack, a Chihuahua, a small TV and a box fan.
“Good luck,” Lennie said as he closed the door behind them. He locked the deadbolt. He shook the door handle to test the new lock. He looked down at his watch: nine minutes.
“Okay. One down,” he told the maintenance worker. “Who’s next?”
It was a teenage couple, seated side by side on a mattress in their living room and playing video games. “Sorry. Only the essentials,” Lennie said, and six minutes later they walked out with nothing but cellphone chargers and their PlayStation.
Next was an empty apartment, where Lennie walked inside and found a child’s bedroom still intact: a plastic basketball hoop, a dozen withered balloons, a wall poster of Kobe Bryant, a fish tank with three goldfish circling against the glass. “All clear,” Lennie told the maintenance worker. “Lock it up.”
Next it was a mother and her two children, ages 6 and 13, gathered in front of their dryer. “I need to finish this load,” the mother told Lennie, and he nodded and reached into his pocket for a referral card to a local shelter. “Maybe they can help,” Lennie said.
“I tried that,” she said. “I tried everything.”
“Do you have anywhere to go?” he asked.
“Does it matter?”
“The law says I have to carry out this order,” Lennie said. “But yeah. It matters to me.”
She grabbed the load of laundry and pointed her kids to a Toyota in the parking lot. “We’ll be in the car for a few days,” she said.
Eight minutes. Eleven minutes. Four minutes. Six minutes. “They’re over fast but sometimes you keep thinking about them,” Lennie said as he climbed back into his truck and headed toward his ninth eviction of the morning, at a newer apartment complex. He pulled into the parking lot and ate a power bar. He sat in the car for an extra moment with his mask off, taking deep breaths, but then the property manager came up to his window and waved.
“Here for the eviction?” she asked, and Lennie nodded, handed her the court order, and pointed to the apartment number.
“Tell me they moved out already,” he said. “Tell me it’s an easy one.”
He followed the property manager through the courtyard to a two-bedroom apartment with an entry mat that read: “Welcome! Friends Gather Here.” On the porch Lennie noticed a small collection of toy trucks and a child’s fairy garden built from straw dolls and succulent plants. “Oh no,” he said, and he shut his eyes for a moment and then knocked, until a man wearing a collared shirt and a carrying briefcase answered the door.
“Hi,” Lennie said. “Ricardo Hernandez?”
“Yes, sir. Can I help you? I’m just leaving for work.”
“I’m sorry to say I’ve got a court order for eviction. I’m here to ask you to leave.”
A little girl came up from behind Ricardo and grabbed onto his leg. Lennie waved to her. She looked up at his bulletproof vest and then hid behind her father and started to cry. “Oh no. It’s okay, sweetheart,” Lennie said. He reached into his pocket and felt beyond the handcuff keys and the flashlight and the absorbent medical gauze for his collection of sheriff-badge stickers, and then he held one out toward her.
“Come on, really?” Ricardo said, glaring first at the sticker and then at Lennie.
Lennie shrugged. “Kids love stickers,” he said, and the girl took it and put it on her dress. Lennie gave her a thumbs-up and turned back to Ricardo.
“I know this is hard,” he said. “We’ll give you a few minutes to get your personal items.”
“We’ve got three kids,” Ricardo said. “We’ve been here three years and never caused any trouble. Our rent was getting paid, but I’ve been late because of this whole pandemic.”
“And I believe you,” Lennie said. “But, unfortunately, that doesn’t stop the eviction.”
“I have the money,” Ricardo said.
Lennie looked down at the eviction paperwork. “Says here the judgment is for $2,300.”
“I’m telling you, I have the money,” Ricardo said, and Lennie nodded and looked at him for a long moment.
For his entire career he’d been listening to tenants offer excuses and beg for more time, and usually Lennie’s answer had been the same. Rent had to be paid on schedule. The eviction order had already been filed. The law was the law. His job was to execute the order. “Sorry, Charlie,” he had sometimes told tenants, but now he looked beyond Ricardo into the home and saw a baby rolling around in a pack-and-play in the living room and a framed photograph on the wall of a family of five sitting on a tree branch in matching flannel shirts. The locksmith stood next to Lennie on the porch, twirling a drill in his hands. Lennie stepped back from the doorway and then smiled.
“Okay,” he said. “If the property manager lets you pay up now, I’m good with that. That would be good for everybody.”
“Thanks,” Ricardo said, and he peeled his daughter off his leg and walked toward the rental office as he told Lennie about everything that had happened to his family during the pandemic. He’d lost his job as a general manager at a restaurant and scrambled to find work at Costco, but then the new baby arrived, and then the property company had sent a letter saying their rent was going up by $200 per month because of “increased demand.” Ricardo had tried to make up the gap by starting a commercial cleaning company, but some of his clients had been slow to pay as his October rent went into default and his November bill came due.
“Believe it or not, I’ve been there,” Lennie said, and he told Ricardo about how his side business as an electrician had suffered during the economic collapse in 2008, just as he and his wife were preparing to adopt a son. He’d fallen so far behind on his mortgage that one afternoon he’d returned home from a day of doing evictions to find a foreclosure notice taped to his own front door, and then he’d barely scrambled together enough money in savings and loans to keep his home.
“We’re all a few bad breaks away,” Lennie told the property manager as they sat down in her office. “If Ricardo here is able to pay up in full, can he stay?”
The manager looked at Ricardo and sighed. “We’ve been trying to contact you since October. Emails. Knocking on your door. Letters. Offers of payment plans. We’ve been more than fair.”
“I’m always working,” Ricardo said.
“Okay, so there’s been some bad communication,” Lennie said. “But, if he’s still able to take care of it?”
“At this point he’d have to pay late fees and also all of December,” the property manager said. She started to punch numbers into a calculator while Ricardo took out his phone and sent messages to clients who owed him money. Lennie smoothed the creases out of his pants and glanced up at the clock. Eighteen minutes already. Twenty. “All right, here’s the total,” the property manager finally said, and she wrote it down on a sticky note and held it up so Ricardo could see: $6,130.78. “It needs to be a cashier’s check,” she said.
“Whoa. Come on. It’s, it’s just —” Ricardo said, trying to gather himself. “It’s just very challenging to get that much money right now.”
“How about 24 hours?” Lennie suggested, looking at the property manager. “I don’t need to be the bad guy here. If you want to give him a day, I can be flexible. I’ll come back tomorrow.”
“It’ll be the same situation,” she said.
“Sure. Could be,” Lennie said. “But who knows? Maybe you get more with honey than with vinegar.”
She drummed a pen against her desk and looked at Ricardo for a moment. “Fine. Twenty-four hours,” she said, and Ricardo clapped his hands together and went outside to make phone calls. Lennie gathered up his eviction papers and stood to leave.
“Thanks for working with him,” he said.
“Don’t get your hopes up,” she said. “I don’t know how you do this every day.”
He was used to people assuming his job was unbearable, but the truth was that despite its heartaches, dangers and starting salary of $48,000, Lennie mostly enjoyed being a constable. It had introduced him to hidden corners of the city and to all kinds of people, including a community of local constables who had become some of his closest friends. They got together each week for breakfast, so one morning Lennie pulled into a diner to join a group of his colleagues before they all started their shifts.
The constables at the table were elected to office by their own local districts, which made for a diverse group. Most of them were Republican, like Lennie, but some were Democrats. One was a landlord who had lost rental income during the pandemic; another had a background in social work and tenants’ rights. Many were former police officers who carried handguns; a few preferred to dress like civilians and carry only clipboards, for their paperwork. But lately all of them came to commiserate about a job that had become more fraught and unpredictable during the past few months.
“So, I walk into this apartment the other day, and the guy’s loading an AK-47,” one constable said. “I couldn’t understand half of what he was saying. Just gibberish.”
“I swear the pandemic’s made everyone mental,” another constable said. “They think their world is ending.”
“In some ways it is,” Lennie said. “If we’re there, it’s probably the worst day of their lives.”
“You have to help them see a tomorrow.”
“You have to get them out of the house.”
It was a familiar debate among the constables — empathy vs. enforcement — and more and more Lennie found himself stuck somewhere in between. Some constables thought tenants had taken advantage of the moratorium, and it was true that Lennie had gone to apartments during the pandemic where tenants acted as if they were above the law, damaging property and spending their rental assistance on flat-screen TVs and new cars while their landlords suffered. But, much more often, he had encountered renters who were newly jobless, working from home, grieving, terrified of the virus, or already sick as they exhausted their savings to pay what little they could.
“A lot of people are still playing catch-up,” he said. “They have good intentions.”
“It’s about treating them with kindness and respect,” another constable said.
“But, as a taxpayer, there’s a part of me that says: Why are we wasting my money to help deadbeats?” a retired constable said. “Maybe it’s their own fault they can’t pay.”
“They don’t have two brain cells to rub together,” another said. “Some of these people can’t be helped.”
“But maybe some can,” Lennie said, and a few minutes later he paid the bill and left for his shift.
A mother and her autistic child in a ransacked one-bedroom. A vacant apartment with 49 empty bottles of Corona scattered across the floor. A woman who offered to pay with fake money and then lunged at Lennie, until he tackled and restrained her. “You’re a tool of capitalistic corruption!” she shouted at him as he pinned her to the floor. “You dogging the American people. You’re killing us. You’re a monster. How do you people sleep?” But within 10 minutes Lennie had gotten her calmed down and out the front door, and then he navigated back toward Ricardo’s apartment complex to see whether he had paid.
“Did we get a happy ending?” he asked the property manager.
“Depends,” she said, and then she explained that she’d received no payment and no more information from Ricardo, so she’d already rented out his unit, increasing the price from $1,700 to $2,200, and a new tenant had snapped it up within 15 minutes. “Demand right now is off the chain,” she said. “We need him out. We need to proceed.” Lennie sighed, nodded and followed the locksmith back down the gravel pathways to Ricardo’s porch.
“They’re ready to go ahead with the order,” he said once Ricardo came to the door.
“I tried to call them,” Ricardo said, and his wife joined him in the doorway. Her eyes were red, and the baby was fussing in her arms. “We’re good for the money,” she said. “We actually got it, but then somebody hacked into the bank account, so now it’s frozen, and they changed the account number, and I’m waiting for the new one, and—”
Ricardo cut in: “Six-thousand is a lot. We just need a little more time.”
Lennie winced and shook his head. “Management already rented it out, but we’ll give you 10 minutes to grab some essentials,” he said.
Ricardo crossed his arms, stared at Lennie for a moment, and then nodded. “Okay. Ten minutes,” he said, and then he began hurrying through the house to find all the essentials necessary for a 7-year-old, a 4-year-old, a 1-year-old and a dog.
He went to the bedroom to pack diapers, wipes, shoes and toiletries. His wife went to the refrigerator for milk, snacks and baby food. “What if the whole damn kitchen is essential?” she asked as she threw open cabinets and slammed them shut. The 4-year-old came into the kitchen carrying her leftover Halloween candy, two stuffed animals and her roller skates. “What about my TV?” she asked Ricardo, and he leaned down to squeeze her shoulder and shook his head. “It’s too big. We’ll get it later,” he said, and she started to cry. Ricardo offered her his cellphone to distract her. Lennie held out another sticker, and the girl took it and looked up at him. “Don’t watch my TV,” she told him. “Don’t change the channel. Don’t sleep in my bed.”
Five minutes. Six. “We need more time,” Ricardo said, cursing to himself, but to Lennie the final 10 minutes inside someone else’s home usually felt interminable. There was little for him to do and nothing helpful he could say, so he stood in a corner and tried to make polite conversation as he encouraged things along.
“I like this lamp,” he told Ricardo.
“Huh?” Ricardo said, as he came out of the bathroom carrying five toothbrushes and then followed Lennie’s gaze to a floor lamp in the living room. “Oh, yeah. Thanks.”
“Where’d you get it?”
“Costco,” Ricardo said as he packed the toothbrushes into a travel case.
“No kidding?” Lennie said. “I should go get one of those.”
“I’ll sell it to you,” Ricardo said. “How about $6,200?”
Nine minutes. Ten. Ricardo grabbed car seats, dog food and his gun safe and carried them outside to the porch. Twelve minutes. Fifteen. “I’m trying not to rush you, but unfortunately we don’t have a whole lot more time,” Lennie said.
“Shoes!” Ricardo reminded his wife. “Pajamas! Pack-and-play!” She started to fold up the crib and then saw a pile of crackers left behind on the floor. She grabbed a broom and started to sweep it up.
“That’s okay,” Lennie said. “You don’t need to do that.”
“I can’t help myself,” she said, and she started to cry. Lennie stood against the wall, watching her, trying to think of something to say. “You ever hear about those robot vacuums?” he asked, finally. “They just go around and keep the dust out and everything.”
“Uh-huh,” she said. She finished sweeping, folded the crib and tossed it onto the porch with the rest of the essentials. Ricardo carried the children outside, and Lennie locked the door and walked with them toward their truck.
“This is just wrong,” Ricardo told him as he started the engine. “It’s ridiculous. It’s cruel. It’s barbaric.”
“I’m sorry,” Lennie said, but the moratorium was over and that meant it was also routine. He watched them drive away, double-checked the locks, and then continued to the next address on his list.
A previous version of this article included several photographs that were removed to respect the privacy of some of the individuals involved, including a minor child.