A sign of hard times belongings on the street

November 27, 1991|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,Evening Sun Staff

Gilbert and Catherine Miller are nomads of the times.

Too poor to pay the rent after Gilbert lost his job two years ago, they moved with their 15-year-old son from a home in Middle River to another in Highlandtown, to friends in White Marsh and ** to his parents in White Hall.

And then, for two months last summer, they lived out of the back of their pickup truck.

"It was like a nightmare," said Catherine, recalling the summer.

After that, they lived with her mother in Reisterstown before moving to a homeless shelter in Baltimore County. Finally, with the aid of a state rent subsidy, they have settled into an Essex apartment.

"It's hard to explain," Catherine says, looking back at the trauma of losing her home. "You wake up in the morning and you think, 'Is this happening to me?' "

It happened not only to the Millers but to thousands of other families who have been forced out of their homes for not paying rent.

In Baltimore and the five surrounding counties, 9,836 households were evicted in the first nine months of this year, according to District Court records.

But these statistics fall short of the actual numbers being forced out of their homes because the court doesn't count people such as the Millers, who move before their belongings are dumped on the street.

The number of tenants being sued for not paying rent gives some idea of the scope of the problem.

During the first nine months of this year, landlords filed 259,492 suits against tenants for nonpayment of rent in the city and five surrounding counties.

While most of those tenants managed to avoid eviction by paying the rent late, the growing number of suits filed in rent court is indicative of the poor economy.

In the last five years, the number of suits has climbed by 23 percent, evictions by 54 percent.

Before the Millers became uprooted, they had watched tenants routinely being ousted from the apartment complex where they lived in Middle River, one of several communities in Baltimore County where evictions are prevalent.

They saw belongings dumped on the street with the sanction of the District Court, then watched scavengers steal whatever they wanted.

"It was sickening. They were a bunch of vultures," said Gilbert. "They would stand back and wait for the kill."

TH The eviction scenes that Gilbert Miller so vividly describes are be

coming as commonplace in the suburbs as panhandlers downtown.

On a recent eviction day in Essex, possessions were dumped out every few blocks -- a mattress with pink sheets, a matching sofa and love seat, a bed frame, a kitchen chair, a lamp, a lunch box.

Scavengers waited in their cars, motors idling, as they followed the landlord's crews from one apartment complex to the next. Neighbors scavenged, too.

At one building, three women rummaged through furniture that belonged to a tenant who wasn't home during the eviction.

One of them sheepishly dragged away a fan-shaped rattan chair. Once inside her own well-furnished apartment nearby, she confessed: "I feel bad. It's the first time I did it. Some people do it as a hobby."

Across the street, another load of furniture was carried to the sidewalk by crews hired by the landlord.

A woman, who said she was a friend of the tenant, shouted to stop the scavengers from stealing. "They already took the TV," she said.

A man picked up a fishing rod and turned it in his hands, as if shopping in a sporting goods store.

"How would you like it if it was yours?" she screamed. He left without the rod.

A few blocks away, Constable Stephen Sopel was overseeing his 10th eviction of the day.

"Everything goes to the street.

The scavengers have a great time. We've had instances where we have to call the police because the scavengers are fighting," he said.

Sopel went to each apartment to look for drugs or guns and allow the landlords' crews to clean up and change the locks.

Alan Dotson, a property manager, supervised the evictions in the apartments owned by Henderson-Webb. He refused to comment. A call to Henderson-Webb's corporate office was not returned.

Though eviction scenes are becoming routine in the suburbs, the emotional toll still jars those who help the homeless.

Rosalyn Burns is a housing counselor at the Community Assistance Network, a private agency in Baltimore County. She recalls how scavengers surrounded one family whose goods were dumped on the sidewalk last August.

The husband was out of work. The wife was nine months pregnant. Their toddler sat in his stroller with his stuffed animals.

"There was a little girl. She couldn't have been more than three or four. She came up and saw the son's stuffed animals and said, 'Can I have these?' "

Burns thought she'd seen it all. "Then I see this and it took everything I had not to break down. My heart went out to them."

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