Credit: Darrow Montgomery
Joseph Harris, formerly homeless, has worked evictions for over a decade. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

It is a bitter cold morning in November, and the sun is just creeping up over the horizon. But for over an hour already, two unmarked vans have been idling or parked outside S.O.M.E. (So Others Might Eat), a longtime nonprofit that feeds D.C.’s homeless. These are the eviction company vans, known as “trucks,” and they are waiting for cheap, off-the-books labor.

Years of experience tells them they can get it at S.O.M.E., where men who sleep on the street or in the shelter congregate in the mornings. These men, and the occasional woman, are always looking to make a few dollars, and the eviction companies know the homeless will accept below the minimum wage of $11.50—accept even $7 total to work an eviction, which can take a few hours or most of a day. And the companies also know that, because they are homeless, these men mostly will not complain, even if the job is to make others homeless.

Mostly. Today, an argument breaks out near one of the trucks. “They only pay you $7. They ain’t giving you nothing to eat. You’re better than that,” a tall, wiry man in a Chicago Bulls hat tells his shorter, squatter friend. “It’s better than nothing,” his friend says, moving past him to get in the truck, which is already crammed with men. The tall man shakes his head in frustration. “They always get the drunks and winos,” he mutters, and walks away.

Jason James, who stands nearby sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup, is also frustrated, because today he didn’t get on a truck. He came all the way from Oxon Hill, Maryland, to S.O.M.E. on 71 O Street NW to try to make a few dollars, but he has already spent a few dollars on transport, and now he sees it was for nothing. “They don’t often take ‘us,’” James says, pointing at himself and a few others standing beside him in fresh, clean clothes. “You gotta have an addiction [to get chosen], because he gotta take his fix, so he’ll take whatever you give him.” 

Some days, as many as four or five trucks show up outside S.O.M.E, each operated by a different eviction company. On those days, it’s easier for men like James to get on a truck. But today there are only two vehicles. Clusters of men gather around them, vying to get chosen for a “crew.”

In D.C., after a landlord successfully gets a writ of restitution to evict a tenant, he or she must  hire an eviction crew to haul the tenant’s belongings to the curb. For the sake of speed—and because in D.C. evictions are overseen by the U.S. Marshals Service, which has other jobs to do—that crew must be large enough to quickly carry out the eviction. The marshals require a crew of 25 people for a single-family home, 20 for a two-bedroom apartment, and 15 for a one bedroom. Enter D.C.’s eviction companies, which are paid by landlords to show up with the appropriate-sized crew.

The people waiting for crew work outside S.O.M.E. take the jobs knowing the day will not be easy. According to interviews with more than a dozen people who work the trucks, this is what they are up against: First, there is no guarantee they’ll get paid what they’re offered. Second, there are no set hours. Also, if the work lasts all day, they may be able to eat or be given water, but they probably won’t. There is no insurance if anyone gets hurt.

There are no gloves and no dollies to move heavy furniture—only trash bags. There is often no transportation back to S.O.M.E. once the evictions are over, which could be in D.C. or far away in Virginia or Maryland. 

There are some benefits to working these crews, of course. It is a job that requires no papers, doesn’t include background checks, and pays cash. There are opportunities for stealing—much-needed clothing, an iPad, cash found squirreled away under a mattress. Charles Millender Jr., who worked the trucks for years to support himself while living in the shelters and eating at S.O.M.E., says, “You set somebody out, and then you steal people’s stuff to try to survive. Ain’t nobody going to have sympathy for you for that. But it’s a hurting feeling.”

In fact, the ACLU has filed a complaint with the U.S. Marshals Service over the handling of the 2015 eviction of Southeast resident Donya Williams and her daughter. The complaint claims that marshals entered with guns drawn —despite no evidence that she posed a threat— while she was naked and wouldn’t allow her to dress before marching her outside. It also claims that a tablet computer and large-screen TV went missing during the eviction.

“Losing your home shouldn’t mean losing your dignity,” says D.C. ACLU senior staff attorney Scott Michelman. 

Workers also have to be hard—or hardened—because, as in the case of the Williams family, the people being evicted are often home. There might be little children or old ladies or parents who are angry. And they may react in many different ways. They might swear, or shout, or cry. They might beg not to put them out on the street.

Dupree Cross, 38, with a graying beard, has worked evictions that pick up outside S.O.M.E. and elsewhere for years, but he says he mostly stopped after a man shot himself during an eviction. The suicide was a turning point for Cross but not an isolated event or a matter of his bad luck. In 2006, multiple psychiatrists wrote a letter to a journal of the American Psychiatric Association warning that eviction had been a significant risk factor for suicide in their patients. They asked why this had not been studied before.

“I got emotional with it after someone shot his head off,” Cross says. “We were evicting someone and the wife came out screaming: ‘He shot his head off!’ After that I said, ‘I can’t do this work anymore.’” 

When men like Cross drop out, the companies know dozens of others among the homeless are ready and willing to take his place.

***

D.C.’s eviction trucks have been showing up outside S.O.M.E. to find labor since at least 1999, when City Paper first published a story about how homeless people were being employed to make others homeless. Back then, eviction companies even went inside the nonprofit’s cafeteria to recruit, but S.O.M.E. put an end to that practice.  

And since at least 2006, these companies have been paying their homeless day laborers below minimum wage. That year, the homeless newspaper Street Sense published an expose of their practices, which sparked a class-action lawsuit brought by a group of homeless and formerly homeless men who worked the trucks. International law firm Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton represented the men, who alleged that six eviction companies in D.C. were paying below the minimum wage, and were even colluding to do so. Three of the companies settled before the court made its findings, including one that settled and then disappeared without making payment. In 2010, the court ordered that the remaining three companies start paying at least the minimum wage and also start maintaining wage records.

But only some of the companies complied with the court’s order. Three eviction companies—Crawford & Crawford, East Coast Express Evictions, and Platinum Realtor Services, Inc.—never showed up in court, and the court never issued any monetary judgment against them. While Platinum Realtor appears to have dissolved, the people who run Crawford & Crawford and East Coast Express continued to recruit outside S.O.M.E. as before. According to more than a dozen men who work the trucks, they are still paying illegally low wages. Some report they pay even less now. And without penalty or regulation, more companies have starting popping up to get in on the profit. 

“We thought that this had been resolved years and years ago,” says Megan Hustings, interim director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit that helped the men bring the 2006 case.

***

D.C. has long struggled with the sheer number of evictions it has to handle. In 1983, the Washington Post published a story about the incredible backlog in evictions the city faced. The prior year, 2,700 families had been evicted in D.C. for failure to pay rent, and 2,000 more evictions were approved but backlogged.

Though fewer evictions are executed today, the numbers remain high. In 2015, according to D.C.’s landlord and tenant court, landlords filed 32,590 cases seeking eviction. Most of these cases are dismissed or resolved through mediation, but 1,567 were executed last year—the vast majority over nonpayment of rent. Most evictions took place in Southeast, followed by Southwest, Northeast, and Northwest, the court says. 

D.C. is not alone in being overburdened by evictions and eviction requests. Several million families face forced removal from their homes across the country every year, according to estimates by the University of Wisconsin Law School’s Neighborhood Law Clinic. In his 2016 book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, American sociologist Matthew Desmond found that numbers were high in part because most low-income families live not in public housing, but in the private housing market, where they spend the majority of their income on rent and bills.

But D.C. may be unique in employing the homeless. In 2007, after the class-action suit was filed, lawyers said they did not believe similar wage violations were happening outside of the District. Today, both homeless advocates and eviction companies that operate across state lines also say they do not believe the homeless are being employed for evictions elsewhere. Why remains an open question. 

D.C. is—and long has been—the only jurisdiction where evictions are overseen by the already overburdened U.S. Marshals Service rather than local sheriffs. But the persistence of the practice may have more to do with the city’s long struggle with homelessness. 

And the affordable housing crisis in D.C. may be adding to the crunch. Jayna Concepcion, office manager for the property management company Real Property Management D.C. Metro, which oversees 270 properties at various income levels across D.C., says the company has seen a rise in evictions because of the increasing lack of apartments low-income tenants can afford. In December, for example, people stood outside all night in the cold for a spot in a new affordable apartment building in Southeast. “People [facing eviction] are staying in apartments longer, because they don’t have a place to go,” Concepcion says. 

Around the holidays, RPM DC Metro usually has only one or two evictions in play. This year, she says they had five. She has seen a similar rise over the last three or four years. When Concepcion has to carry out an eviction in one of their properties, she says she calls East Coast Express Eviction. It is a company she has used for years, and that she says can get the job done without breaking the bank. 

An evicted tenants belongings on the sidewalks belongings on the sidewalk Credit: Darrow Montgomery

***

Along with Crawford & Crawford, East Coast Express Eviction is the second company that, after escaping penalty by the court, has continued to pay illegally low wages.

At the time of the lawsuit, a man named Nelson Terry ran East Coast Express Eviction, but some time in the intervening years a woman named Tara McClain, known as “T” among the men who work the trucks, took over. In 2015, according to business filings, McClain registered a second eviction company, called New Development Express Eviction. In local business listings, New Development and East Coast share the same address. 

McClain died in June 2016, and it is unclear whether she changed the name of the company to evade the court. Either way, New Development’s vans have continued to show up outside S.O.M.E., as have those affiliated with East Coast. Teale Toweill, a lawyer at Cleary who has taken up work on the 2006 case, says it has been hard to pursue the defendants because the companies are so hard to pin down.

“These kind of companies are able to shut down and open with a new name. It’s easy to do that, because all you need is a truck,” Toweill says. “We want to pursue these defaulting defendants, but they are slippery. We are continuing to explore whether there are effective avenues for relief in court.”

A person who answered the phone at East Coast Express Eviction declined to comment on how much it pays and who it employs. But at Manta, a website that tracks small businesses, East Coast is listed as making $1 to $2.5 million annually, while employing four people or fewer—not enough to fill a crew.

A driver for New Development, who was recruiting outside S.O.M.E. one day in December and would not give her name, told City Paper she also would not comment on how much the company paid but noted that “it’s different” for every job. New Development is listed as making up to $500,000 annually, while also employing four people or fewer.

As for Crawford & Crawford, which at the time of the suit was run by a man named Vincent Crawford, there are now zero references to that company online, except in court documents. When the City Paper published its story about eviction companies back in 1999, Crawford’s company was called V&S Evictions. It is unclear what Crawford calls his company today. The men are not usually told what company they’re working for—only that they are working a “Vince truck,” a truck for “T,” or, since 2015, a truck for New Development, or one of the other new vans, which they know only by the names of the drivers. 

Repeated efforts to reach Vincent Crawford by phone or in person were unsuccessful.  According to multiple men who work his vans, Crawford no longer shows up outside S.O.M.E. and instead meets the men at eviction sites.

Almost every truck worker interviewed reported about the same pay over the past year from Vincent Crawford, East Coast, and New Development. They all earned between $7 and $10 an eviction, and sometimes as little as $5. They were paid at this rate even if an eviction lasted for several hours.

Those who worked the new trucks, however, reported being paid “package deals” instead of a per-job rate, which sounds more lucrative than it turns out to be. Multiple people reported that one of the new trucks pays $40 for 15 jobs, which comes out to $2.67 an eviction.

Frank James Monroe, who stood outside S.O.M.E. in a gray hat and big parka one cold December morning, became angry talking about the package deals. “I did that shit one time— OK, a few times,” he says. “I got $15, and we evicted four to five motherfucking units. What do I fucking look like?” His friend, who goes by “Antman” Kenny and was rolling cigarettes with Monroe, says the per-job rate was just as demeaning and had actually gotten worse over the years. “Everybody here has gone [on the trucks] a couple times,” says Kenny. “At first they were paying $20, then $10, now $7. Soon they’ll be chopping people up for $7. Seven punk-ass dollars.”

“That’s because people that own the companies are getting all the money,” adds Joseph Harris, 52, who has been working the trucks for over a decade. Though he said he’s long felt exploited, he’s learned not to ask for higher pay. “He’ll just tell you to get on another truck,” he says. And so he takes the $7 without complaint. 

Because if a person needs $7, working an eviction crew is the easiest job to get. In addition to paying in cash and not requiring papers or a background check, all a person has to do to work an eviction is show up outside S.O.M.E.—where he might be that morning anyway. Even Dupree Cross, who was there when a man shot himself at an eviction, says he still works evictions sometimes. He does it when he can’t get transportation out to Labor Ready, which employs day laborers and pays them the minimum wage or more, but is all the way out in Landover, Maryland.

Eric Falquero, managing editor of Street Sense, the homeless newspaper that first broke the story on the eviction companies’ low wages, says this is the catch-22 of eviction work. “One of the things we see advocates fighting for is consistent work for people who want to work. On evictions, you can come every day and work,” he says. “It takes advantage of their need, but it is some sort of income for honest labor.”

***

On one of the last days in December, Falquero went to S.O.M.E. to try to get on an eviction truck. For months, he’d been hearing from a Street Sense vendor that the trucks were still paying below minimum wage after the lawsuit, and he wanted to verify it himself.

Falquero was lucky. The day he went, multiple trucks were looking for crews. Parked outside was one of Vincent Crawford’s trucks, along with a New Development van and several others belonging to the newer eviction companies. By 8 a.m., Falquero had successfully boarded Crawford’s cargo van, where he was crammed in with nine other men on benches, plus a driver and a recruiter sitting up front. He was not offered any particular pay, though he heard from one man on the van that it would be $10, and from the recruiter later on that it would be $7. By 9 a.m. they were driving to a house in Southeast D.C. At 10, the marshals arrived. The marshals always enter houses first, before the crew. 

This time, the marshals declared it a “trash out”—meaning they didn’t find the personal items inside worthy of saving. The crew was told they could leave. Falquero was paid $7. Another worker was paid only $5. The driver told him he “didn’t have change.” The men were left to find a bus back to S.O.M.E., which meant that Falquero’s $7 shrank to $5.25, while the other man’s $5 became $3.25. But the men on the truck were happy. A “trash out” was the best possible scenario. They got a few dollars just to be squeezed in a van for a couple hours, instead of $7 for a lengthy, stressful eviction.

A man who works for both Street Sense and on the trucks, who is homeless and did not want to be named for fear of retribution from the eviction companies, says he first got work on an East Coast Express Eviction truck right after he moved to D.C. several years ago. He had heard through the grapevine that employment was available outside S.O.M.E. and was surprised to find that he did not need to fill out paperwork. When he first got on the truck, he says he saw a cooler of beer, and thought, “I’m in the right place.” It seemed like a party—and it was—drinking in a van with other guys before work. But he soon learned that whatever he drank would be deducted from his pay at the end of the day. 

And he realized why the men were getting beers. “We have seen babies crying, grandmas. … You get a beer, so you don’t have any emotion,” he says in an interview at the Street Sense offices. “You do some kind of drugs, so then you don’t care, so you leave them on the curb over there crying, and go on to next one.” He says the evictees don’t get any information either—no shelter listing or hotline number. 

The man, who struggles with a drinking problem, also says it was no mystery to him why eviction companies continued to show up outside S.O.M.E. even after the lawsuit. “Instead of choosing someone professional who says, ‘I can’t do it,’ they choose people who don’t have any feelings anymore, and have given up on life,” he says. “Because they will get on this truck for $7.”

***

For years, S.O.M.E. has tried to stop the trucks from getting near the nonprofit and the people it serves. Kate Wiley, a spokesperson for S.O.M.E., says the nonprofit finds it “inappropriate and offensive” to “recruit homeless persons for the job of making other people homeless” and to pay them below the minimum wage to do so. She says S.O.M.E. is also concerned about the men’s safety, because they are often “crowded into U-Hauls and other vehicles not intended to transport human beings in the cargo section.” 

The nonprofit barred solicitation on their premises and told the trucks they could not park in their lot. After the trucks moved down the block., S.O.M.E. consulted with the Metropolitan Police Department but found it had little recourse. And there was scant desire by other agencies to regulate the industry either.

The U.S. Marshals Service, the agency that spends the most time with eviction companies, is almost certainly aware of some of their hiring practices. Most of the men who work the crews know the marshals by name and say they believe they know how they are hired and paid. But Robert Brandt, a U.S. Marshals spokesman, says that whether the eviction companies pay below minimum wage or not, “it’s not something we actively investigate or are attempting to monitor.” 

The Labor Department, which is tasked with enforcing the minimum wage and monitoring labor violations, also seems uninterested in regulating the evictions industry. “We don’t have any initiatives focusing on this industry,” says Labor Department spokeswoman Lenore Uddyback-Fortson. 

D.C.’s Office of Labor Law and Enforcement, which enforces wage laws in the District, notes that it has an initiative to target labor gatherings, or “hot spots,” in the city. There, it informs workers about their rights and educates employers about wage law compliance. But it says it has not received or investigated any complaints about evictions crews. 

And so the eviction companies continue to show up outside S.O.M.E., as they have for almost two decades.

***

Some companies in D.C. employ paid staff and have uniformed crews. Others employ day laborers and pay them a fair wage. But these companies are expensive for landlords, charging $2,000 or more for an eviction, when a landlord has already lost rent payments. Gary Roman, who runs the eviction company The Attic, which charges that much, says that’s the cost of affording a large crew. 

“Some of these companies say they’ll do the same job for maybe $500 instead of $2,000,” Roman says. “But how do you hire 20 people for that amount?” 

Roman hires his crews from Casa de Maryland, a nonprofit that connects companies to day laborers, which requires him to pay at least $12 an hour. 

Some men who have worked the eviction trucks for years have successfully gotten out of the game. Millender, the man who described working evictions as a “hurting feeling,” says he stopped doing it after he went to the Phoenix House, a drug rehab and treatment center in Arlington, and got clean. Before that, he had been addicted to Synthetic K, a drug that mimics marijuana and can have a numbing effect. 

Millender says going to Phoenix House and then getting involved in Project Empowerment, the city’s job training program, “changed my mentality, my way of thinking,” and “I couldn’t get myself to put anybody out after that.” 

On a recent morning, Millender visits S.O.M.E. to see his old buddies. He wears brown corduroys and a Cowboys hat and carries a smartphone with a photo of himself with Mayor Muriel Bowser at his drug rehab program graduation. He now has an apartment he shares with his girlfriend and a job cleaning Bennett Park in Arlington. He gets paid by check, which he says “feels good. I get paid tomorrow.” 

The other men ask Millender how he got out. He tries to explain it to them, but he also knows that many of them won’t be able to do it. He knows how hard it was to escape drugs and how difficult to find or stay in the programs that will help them—especially without housing, a phone, or money for transit. He knows most of them will get on the trucks again.

“I hated to see it, especially when you had to put the baby kids out,” he says. “But that was my hustle.”

For those seeking emergency shelter, D.C.’s shelter hotline can be reached at 202-399-7093 or by dialing 211. Other shelters include:

The Central Union Mission | 65 Massachusetts Ave NW | (202)745-7118Community for Creative Non-Violence | 425 2nd St NW, Washington | (202) 393-1909Coalition for the Homeless, with multiple locations | (202) 347-8870Luther Place Night Shelter (for women) | 1226 Vermont Ave NW, No. 4 | (202) 387-5464