Until this year, people facing eviction in Baltimore could count on one thing: Should they be forced from their homes, their belongings would be gathered from the curbside and stored by the city for up to a month while they sorted out their lives.
But come May 1, the city will not be required to store the belongings for more than 10 days, according to a cost-cutting measure proposed by the administration of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and passed yesterday by the City Council.
George G. Balog, the city's director of public works, estimated in a November letter to the council that it was costing $650,000 per year to collect and store the belongings. Most of that spending is wasted, city officials argue, since only about 2 percent of the people evicted from their homes ever retrieve their property from storage.
But advocates for poor and homeless families have said the bill would make it harder for many of the more than 6,000 individuals and families evicted in Baltimore each year to hang on to scarce belongings, miring many of them deeper in poverty.
"My concern is 10 days is really not enough time," said Irvin J. Conway, president of the Maryland Welfare Rights Organization, who also works in the eviction prevention unit of the Urban Services Agency. "Where are they going to find the money to reclaim their goods if they are already behind on their rent?"
"When you're evicted, there is so much you have to respond to," said Ann C. Sherrill, a spokeswoman for Action for the Homeless, a non-profit advocacy group. "Survival is the first concern, making sure your family has a roof over their head and food to eat."
Homeless advocates also said court eviction notices could be so confusing that tenants often did not know when they were scheduled for eviction and were not around when their possessions were stacked in the street outside their home.
In 1989, 6,416 evictions were carried out in Baltimore on the orders of the Rent Division of the District Court. Of those who were evicted, however, only 126 reclaimed their belongings, according to a letter written by Mr. Balog in support of the legislation.
Last month, a traditionally slow time, the constable's office carried out 553 evictions.
By law, landlords may evict tenants only after receiving a court order, and they may not begin unless a constable is present. Once an eviction order is executed, the constable's office -- part of the District Court -- calls in an auctioneer to haul the belongings to storage. The belongings often sit out for hours before the hauler arrives, however, leaving them vulnerable to theft.
To reclaim the property, the tenant must pay hauling, storage and other fees that typically total more than $100. If the tenant is unable to come up with the money and a way to transport the property from the auctioneer's warehouse at 2720 Sisson St. in Remington, the auctioneer may sell it, keeping 25 percent of the proceeds and turning over the remainder to the city.
Fred J. Winer, an auctioneer who holds the hauling contract for the city, said the city was overly optimistic in its projections that it would save as much as $400,000 per year by reducing the storage period.
He said the city still would have to store property for those who asked and would have to hire crews to haul away the belongzngs of those who did not.
But Councilwoman Vera P. Hall, D-5th, said that tenants received several warnings of a pending eviction from the court and that the city needed to save as much as possible.
"If it were a sudden thing, I would be much more concerned," Mrs. Hall said. "If you look at the amount of paper that proceeds the eviction, it's unreal."