When it comes to evictions, homeless workers do the heavy lifting.
Vincent Crawford’s first stop on a steamy summer Friday is at the corner of 1st and
O Streets NW. Considering that Crawford runs V&S Evictions—one of a handful of District companies that relocate delinquent tenants involuntarily from their homes to the sidewalk—this location might seem a little strange. After all, 1st and O is the home of So Others Might Eat (SOME), a major downtown homeless-services agency. Its impoverished clients would seem to be one group of people exempt from Crawford’s professional duty.
Crawford, however, is not here to put anybody out on the street. He’s looking for labor among the already dispossessed. “You gotta have 25 workers to move someone out of a house, 15 to move them out of a two-bedroom apartment, and 10 for a one-bedroom,” says Crawford. “I’ve seen them cancel jobs if you don’t have enough people.” So he draws from a pool of people who are more than happy to move a few chairs for a few ducats. Crawford’s workers are homeless—and most of them have no problem with adding unfortunate souls to their ranks.
It’s 11:30 a.m. when Crawford wheels his truck into the alley behind SOME, and a smattering of folks are outside talking. During the week, the agency serves breakfast and lunch to all comers. And every morning, day-labor recruiters like Crawford come knocking on SOME’s door in search of down-on-their-luck workers eager to make a few bucks. The work can range from construction to hauling trash. But none of the labor is as freighted with irony as eviction.
Though most recruiters showed up three hours ago, Crawford, whose only eviction of the day is scheduled for 1 p.m., has little trouble assembling a crew. He’s barely stepped out of the truck’s cab before his first two recruits step up. “What happened to you?” says Crawford as he examines a Band-Aid under the eye of one of his prospective workers.
“I got into a fight,” the guy responds.
Crawford shakes his head and makes his way over to SOME’s cafeteria. The clients have seen him before and gradually drift over to ask if he’s doing an eviction. Today, Crawford is working a one-bedroom apartment, so he needs only 10 pairs of hands. By the time he reaches the cafeteria, he’s already got six. He and his first few recruits take plates from SOME’s workers and sit down at an empty table to eat lunch and shoot the breeze.
Every once in a while, says Crawford, he gets a conscientious objector. “Some [homeless workers] will ask what kind of work you’re doing,” says Crawford. “When you tell them evictions, they say, ‘I’m not doing it.’” More often, Crawford says, the daily realities of being broke, homeless, and sometimes drug-addicted trample over any abstract moral standards.
Crawford should know. A few years back, he was in the same position.
If your bank account is hovering around zero and paying rent is a distant memory, Crawford is pretty much the kind of guy you assume will eventually turn up at your door. A burly man with meaty hands and a shaved head, he got his start booting out unfortunate tenants back in 1989, helping out V&S’s founder, Wilson Fisher. He’s been running the show on his own since June 1998.
But when he got started in evictions, Crawford also had a nasty crack habit and a taste for cheap wine. Tossing out tenants gave him access to quick cash for bottle and pipe. The evictions “gave me money to do what I needed to do,” he says. “It took care of my habit.” Crawford’s habit also took care of him: In 1992, he found himself living on the streets of D.C. He says that his homelessness didn’t come from getting evicted himself—he just gave up his apartment and bounced.
From 1992 to 1995, Crawford was one of many who stood outside SOME waiting to get picked up for a work crew. He would work evictions for most of the day and then go and get high in the evening. “The drugs took over to the point where I didn’t care about nothing else,” he says.
The idea of being homeless and getting paid to make other people homeless didn’t trouble Crawford when he was strung out. And it doesn’t trouble him now that he’s straight, either. When asked if it bothers him to evict families with kids, he thinks for only a second. “In a nutshell,” he responds, “no. I didn’t make them homeless.”
Most of the SOME recruits also see no conflict in bouncing tenants for a living. David Tait says that he may get upset when he has to boot children, but mostly he blames the parents—especially when they seem to have money. “I went on a job last week, and there were kids, a middle-aged couple, and an elderly couple all living in the house,” says Tait. “But they had a black BMW, and a stereo in almost every room.”
Tait says that halfway through that eviction, one of the men left and returned with a $2,000 cashier’s check. Tait says the landlord called the eviction off. “They had money in the bank, and they still put their kids through all of that. I couldn’t believe it,” says Tait.
If most eviction workers do have a beef, it’s with the meager pay they get for their labor. V&S, like most other eviction companies, pays workers $5 for a one-bedroom apartment, $10 for a two-bedroom apartment, and $15 for anything bigger. Sometimes, Tait says, workers are recruited to do “package deals,” in which they are paid a certain amount of money to do five or six apartments or houses. But the workers are rarely paid more than $20 for a package—not the most lucrative compensation package. Tait claims that once he worked an entire day of evictions for another firm but was only paid $20 because it was a package deal.
District law dictates that workers paid by the job must earn at least as much as they would get paid hourly under the minimum wage. Because homeless people aren’t likely to organize a class-action suit, eviction workers are routinely underpaid.
“There’s something: homeless people evicting homeless people,” says the Rev. John Adams, the executive director of SOME. “We certainly don’t support day-labor recruiters, and we ask them not to be on our premises.”
“If you’re going to cheat me, at least cheat me at the minimum wage,” says Chris Lewis, who works for many of the eviction companies that recruit at SOME. “One time I worked a job, and the guy told me to split a five-dollar bill with another dude that was working. I got paid $2.50.”
And if the eviction crew arrives at a house and the tenants have already cleaned everything out, the workers may not get paid at all. But the eviction company still gets paid—even if its workers don’t so much as lift a chair.
Pamela Banks, associate director of D.C.’s Office of Wage-Hour, says that the abuses suffered by day laborers are particularly hard to root out. “If they come to our office and file a complaint, we’ll do something,” says Banks. “There are many violations that just wouldn’t come to the attention of this office. We can’t just scout for this kind of work. We need an employee to file a complaint.”
Having worked on eviction crews, Crawford makes no bones about the pennies that his workers make and extends very little sympathy. “They don’t make a whole lot of money,” he says. “But you have people who would work evictions rather than get a regular job. Frankly, I don’t understand it.”
Crawford says that he pays his workers even if a house is completely cleaned out and notes that, although his workers think he should pay them more, they still sign on to work with him regularly.
“Vincent isn’t that bad,” says Lewis. “He don’t try to con you.”
Just after 1 p.m., Crawford’s U-Haul truck is parked on 19th Street SE—directly in front of its target, a shabby-looking brick apartment building in Fairlawn. The day’s eviction was scheduled for 1 o’clock, but the federal marshals who oversee District evictions are running late. The marshals are supposed to be the first people to inform residents to vacate their apartment immediately. If things get ugly, the marshals call the police, who promptly arrest any recalcitrant tenants.
The crew is left to wait. In the humid air, a few workers are sitting on the curb taking a smoke break, another is cat-calling to an attractive young woman, and the rest are simply shooting the breeze.
Lewis says that he’s thinking about making the same leap as Crawford, going from eviction worker to eviction supervisor. He says that once he gets back on his feet, he’s going to try to pull together a company. “You can’t do that type of work,” protests worker Roosevelt Wallace, suggesting that the supply of misery is too short to support another full-time evictor.
“It wouldn’t just be evictions,” says Lewis. “We’d do landscaping and moving, too.”
Wallace doesn’t look convinced, but he ends his protest when the two federal marshals pull up in a white sedan. The marshals step out of the car and say hello to Crawford and a few workers. After some last-minute paperwork is finished, the marshals join the landlord at the front door and then proceed to Apartment 3. “Everything usually goes smoothly with the eviction,” says Crawford. “The marshals don’t take no mess.” While Crawford and his crew wait in the hall,
one of the marshals bangs loudly on the apartment door and then yells, “Federal marshal—open up!”
After the third knock, there’s still no answer. The landlord opens up the apartment and lets the marshals in. A quick look reveals that no one is home. The marshal calls in Crawford’s crew. There isn’t much left in the apartment, just enough for Crawford’s men to break a light sweat. It takes all of five minutes for the men to lug a worn-out couch, a table, and a few chairs out to the cracked sidewalk.
For Crawford, today’s labor was light. “Usually, when we evict somebody,” he says, “half of this block would be covered with stuff.”
As soon as the eviction is over, the marshals are gone. Shortly thereafter, Crawford packs up his workers and heads back up to SOME, where he’ll drop them off after paying them a quick fiver. On the truck, the conversation turns to griping about the $5 they’re set to receive for the hour they’ve been with Crawford. Wallace, for one, says the money is going to good use. Riding back to 1st and O, he announces that this will be one of his last evictions. Apparently, he’s gotten a little money together, and he thinks he’ll have a place to stay within the next couple of weeks. If he needs help moving, he’ll know where to find it. CP