Twelve days before Christmas on a cold, damp morning, a rapid knock on Angela Hooks' door interrupted her as she was dressing her 3-year-old daughter inside their rented Northwest Baltimore rowhouse.
"Who's there?" Ms. Hooks yelled toward the door.
"It's the landlord," a man's voice shouted back.
"The landlord, it's moving day."
That curt announcement triggered a process that touches thousands of lives each year in Baltimore -- an eviction.
So many evictions occur in the city that the court handling rent cases is often overwhelmed. A program that helps beleaguered tenants routinely runs out of money. And city sanitation crews can't keep up with all the sofas, mattresses and other furniture tossed on the sidewalk by landlords.
Social services counselors, meanwhile, have noticed signs of two disturbing trends: The number of people having trouble paying their rent keeps growing and more working familes are losing their homes.
In a city with 142,112 occupied rental dwellings, constables served 94,435 eviction notices during the budget year that ended in June. Some notices probably went to families that were repeatedly late in paying rent.
But more than 10,000 cases ended with an eviction -- like the one at Ms. Hooks' North Mount Street rowhouse.
"I don't know where I'm going to go," she said as furniture, bedding, even children's toys, were hauled outside. "I haven't even thought about it."
Ms. Hooks knocked on her neighbors' door to see if they would babysit her daughter, who was dressed but crying. Her 6-year-old son, concentrating only on the puppy he stroked in his arms, left with another neighbor. Ms. Hooks began putting clothes in large trash bags.
Landlord Donald Haskins said he and Ms. Hooks had agreed that if she helped make repairs in the house -- which had holes in some walls and worn hardwood floors -- she would only pay $100 a month rent.
"Does she have the rent?" asked Paul Briscoe, one of 28 constables who oversee evictions in Baltimore.
"She hasn't had any since August, I don't know why she would have any now," said Mr. Haskins.
"If you look inside, you'll see why I haven't paid," Ms. Hooks said. "It's rat-infested and everything else."
Given the chance, Edwina Sampson might have helped Ms. Hooks avoid eviction. As director of the city's Eviction Prevention office, Ms. Sampson might have even been able to get the landlord to make some repairs before any rent had to be paid.
The telephone number for Eviction Prevention is on the back of the court summonses that tenants receive before an eviction order is made. But Ms. Hooks apparently never saw it.
The six workers in Eviction Prevention negotiate with landlords, buying time for tenants trying to scrape up the money they owe. The agency also offers counseling that could help tenants avoid the same situation again.
And if a tenant has no other resources, Eviction Prevention can provide a one-time grant of up to $400 for back rent. Unless the money has run out, that is.
The program receives $25,000 a month to make rent grants, but the money is usually gone in less than three weeks, said Ronald Brownley, who oversees the program for the social services department.
"No question we will be asking for an increase for next fiscal year, but we're still going to run out of money," he said. "Even if we had a 25 percent increase, I guarantee we would still run out of money. The problem is not lessening, the problem is increasing."
The Eviction Prevention office handled 14,282 cases in the fiscal year that ended in June, Ms. Sampson said. Halfway through the current fiscal year, the office already has handled 11,411 cases.
Underemployment and low wages are as much a factor as unemployment in the high number of evictions, Ms. Sampson said.
"We're seeing more and more working-class people," she said. "We don't just see people on public assistance, it's people who have jobs."
That could be a sign Baltimore is having trouble shaking off the recession, said Dr. Paul Lande, a senior fellow in the Institute for Policy Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
"The 1990-91 recession hurt Baltimore City and the area disproportionately, as compared to the state as a whole and the counties suburban to Washington, D.C., which are stronger. The recovery we are observing nationally, and to a limited extent in the rest of the state, really hasn't begun in Baltimore."
Where eviction begins
The first formal steps in an eviction occur in a spacious, well-lighted room in the basement of the Eastside District Court building on East North Avenue. Looking at the 200 or so people inside renters court, you can't immediately tell the tenants from the landlords.
Black, white, Asian and Hispanic. Christian, Jew and Muslim. Young and old; rich and poor; fat, skinny, tall and short -- all sit on wooden benches, waiting to stand before the judge.