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Homeless, Helpless, Hopeless

A surge in evictions across the country illustrates the depth of the economy's recession. Help is dwindling for those in trouble.


CLEVELAND — From the duplex on the west side of town, they cart out an empty bird cage, a rusted exercise bike, a mattress, a dictionary. From the yellow house with green trim emerges a broken dresser and some hangers. The Victorian house with the turret yields a sofa bed, a recliner, a table.

On it goes, all day, every day. One home after another is emptied onto frozen lawns, furniture and flannel shirts piled helter-skelter at the curb. Movers do the heavy lifting. Court bailiffs supervise, then post a notice on the door: "Your property and effects were moved into the street."

This is the eviction circuit--and it's busier than ever.

"Evictions reflect the conditions in society as a whole," Cleveland Housing Court Judge Raymond Pianka likes to say. In other words, as a recession squeezes, people lose their homes.

This recession has begun to squeeze hard.

Record numbers of homeless people are seeking emergency shelter in Boston, New York, Milwaukee and other cities gripped by winter cold. In Cleveland, evictions have surged to an all-time high. In Las Vegas, only charity has kept thousands of laid-off casino workers in their homes. The constable there who handles evictions fears a crush of new cases this month as the handouts dwindle.

In city after city, social workers and tenant advocates report frantic calls from the newly jobless, desperate to get out of leases they no longer can afford. Pleas for food, for help paying utility bills and, above all, for shelter are soaring. The Catholic Charities basic-needs hotline here logged 82% more calls in 2001 than the year before. Nearly three-quarters were from people with housing emergencies--some of them still employed.

"We are going to see some people who never dreamed of being homeless, homeless or living in their cars. Or desperate," said J. Thomas Mullen, president of Catholic Charities for the Cleveland diocese.

Mary Etchison is one. She's 51 and single, lives alone and, for the last five years, has cleaned rooms in a downtown Cleveland hotel. She'd worked her way up to earning $8 an hour, plus benefits. She was in control. Then came Sept. 11. The hotel's business collapsed. Etchison was laid off.

She hopes to get unemployment benefits. But the bureaucracy has been maddeningly slow. To buy groceries, she has sold her belongings, everything she can spare. The video "Wild Wild West" brought in $3 the other day, enough for a few meals of macaroni and cheese. Not enough, however, to pay her rent, $115 due every two weeks.

So Etchison stood before Magistrate Ruben E. Pope III one recent morning in the Cleveland Justice Center, Courtroom 3A. The landlord presented his case. Etchison, her voice barely a whisper, affirmed that she had not paid the rent since Nov. 26. She admitted she could not pay it now.

"You have 10 days to vacate the premises," the magistrate said.

Etchison stood there a moment, face taut, then left the courtroom. It was packed with other landlords, other tenants; they filled every bench and lined the sides of the room, jostling their baby strollers or leaning on their canes, gripping folders crammed with the rumpled records of their despair.

Etchison walked past them. Her eyes were beyond tears, clouded with shock. She took a breath. She planned her next move. "I'm going to have to get a lot of quarters," she decided. "I'm going to have to call a lot of shelters." The tears surged back and her voice again dropped to a ragged whisper. "I don't know what else I can do."

Her desperation echoes loud these days. Any number of statistics can track it.

There's the national unemployment rate, which stood in December at 5.8%, the highest in nearly seven years.

There are the swelling counts of homeless people in nearly every urban area--a record 29,800 in New York City alone, more than half of them children. Shelters everywhere are overflowing, their directors setting cots in the hallways and mats on the floor and still turning people away. A recent survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found a huge jump in the need for shelter in two dozen major cities. Requests for shelter beds this winter were up 26% in Trenton, N.J., 25% in Kansas City, Mo., 20% in Denver and New Orleans. Los Angeles showed a 6% increase in requests for emergency shelter.

In Boston, the crisis is so acute that officials have taken to putting up the homeless in suburban hotels, 30 miles from downtown, because there is no more space in the city--save the streets. In Minneapolis, several shelter directors hold nightly lotteries to determine who will get bunks.

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