A photo of furniture and belongings on a curb on Tuckerman Street in Northwest. Homeless people were paid to move the items there, much as they have done at thousands of others apartments in D.C.
Laura Thompson-Osuri

It’s 7:30 in the morning on a clear day in early April, and a crowd of about 35 men starts to come together on the sidewalk in front of So Others Might Eat (SOME). Most of these men are homeless, and all of them are there that morning looking for work.

After about 45 minutes a large van arrives followed by a car. A woman gets out of the car and starts shouting, “Anyone wanna work? Anyone wanna work?” Several men approach her and are directed to climb into the van. Once about 15 people pile in – some sitting on crates and others on the floor — the van drives off.

A few other vans and trucks pull up following the same routine: there is a call for work, a crowd piles in, and the van pulls off. While homeless people often take part in the day-labor economy working in construction, demolition and trash clean-up through similar early morning van pick-ups like these, most of the men leaving this morning are going to help with evictions — in the end, adding to the homeless population.

For at least the last six years, eviction companies in the area and independent landlords have been calling on homeless people to help clear out the belongings of individuals and families who have defaulted on rental agreements. According to the U.S. Marshals Service, the number of workers required for an eviction ranges from 10 for a one-bedroom apartment, to 25 for a house or commercial property. And on a clear day in the spring as many as 10 eviction jobs are available, homeless people report.

The companies pay between $5 and $15 per eviction job, each of which usually lasts from two to four hours, including travel and waiting time, according to several homeless people. This equates to a wage of between $1.25 and $7.50 per hour.

Michael Stoops, acting director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, sees the situation as inherently negative for homeless people.

“The real culprits are the people who exploit homeless people by not paying them a fair wage,” Stoops said. “And then they go a step further by using homeless people to evict people who then become homeless.”

Ironically, D.C.’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness makes special note of trying to limit the number of evictions to “prevent homelessness from within the mainstream.”

“More emphasis would be placed on keeping people housed when they face evictions and doing that in a smart way that invests case management support along with cash assistance so that the crisis is addressed and resolved,” the plan states.

Stoops added that he does not know of any other state where homeless people are helping to evict residents. This may be because in most states the county sheriff’s office performs the evictions, while in D.C. the landlords are responsible for providing labor for the eviction. The two main companies that rely on homeless people to help in evictions are All American Eviction and East Coast Express Evictions, according to several homeless people, including many Street Sense vendors. But despite these reports, the chief executive officers of both companies deny the practice.

Caroline Lansford, the CEO of All American, said her company never pays homeless people and that all of the workers performing evictions are “part of the staff.” But according to a Dunn & Bradstreet report, All American only has one employee, even though the average eviction requires 15 people on site. Since All American (and East Coast) charge landlords $165 to evict a one-bedroom apartment, to pay the required 10 people D.C.’s minimum wage of $7 an hour for a two-hour job would barely be profitable for the company. (Both companies also charge landlords $200 for a two-bedroom apartment and $450 for a townhouse.)

East Coast’s CEO Nelson Terry claims to find laborers to carry out its evictions through Labor Ready, a temporary service for manual laborers. For an independent landlord to hire 15 people through Labor Ready to evict a two-bedroom apartment, it would cost $930 — $15.50 per person per hour for a four-hour minimum. So even if East Coast is getting a deal, the cost to hire laborers through Labor Ready would be well above what East Coast charges landlords.

Homeless people report that independent landlords also occasionally come looking for laborers, but according to Street Sense vendor Donald Brooks, these men and women usually pay better; $15 an eviction compared to East Coast and All American’s $5 per eviction average.

But many homeless people don’t mind helping with evictions because it is a way to make a little money when other day labor work is hard to come by. In fact, one homeless man, who wanted to remain anonymous, said that he prefers the eviction work over other day labor jobs he has done “because you are just moving stuff all day long” and it is not dangerous or backbreaking. He said that he usually makes $20 a day for a full eight hours of work. In comparison, Street Sense vendor Jake Ashford reported that a construction company he has worked for as a day laborer paid around $50 a day.

Photo of two men climbing in a van while another watches, in front of the service provider So Others Might Eat.

Homeless men pile into a van in front of SOME, likely heading out to help with evictions or some other laborer job. Photo by Matthew Impett.

Still, other homeless people feel uncomfortable removing people from their homes.

“Here it is I am living on the street and don’t have anything, and I can’t bear the thought of women and children ending up in my situation,” Ashford said. “It sickens me to know I am helping the problem that is making them homeless. And only for $5 a day.”

In a D.C. eviction, the act of removing personal property from a building and placing it on the street can only occur 30 days after a landlord gives notice of an eviction to a tenant for violating a lease agreement. If the tenant does not leave in 30 days, then the landlord can get a writ of assistance from the U.S. Marshals Service and force the tenant from his or her home. For all evictions a U.S. marshal is present to enforce the eviction order. And in D.C., since it is illegal to evict someone if forecasts predict a 50 percent or higher chance of snow or rain or a temperature of below 32 degrees for the next 24 hours, Spring is a popular time for evictions.

But just how many evictions occur in D.C. is hard to come by. The U.S. Marshals Service failed to give Street Sense an estimate on the number of evictions in D.C. during the average week, and both East Coast and All American were hesitant to give an exact number. But by looking at All American’s reported annual sales in 2005 of $62,000 (according to Dunn & Bradstreet), and the average amount charged per eviction, Street Sense estimates that the company performs around 310 evictions a year, or just under 6 per week.

After saying that he could not give an estimate of how many evictions his company does a week, Terry did say that East Coast does evictions for landlords of all sizes. “We do everything,” he said. “We have helped the federal government evict from the federal embassy of Iran and we have even evicted airline terminals.”

Mark Youssef and Jake Ashford contributed to this story.

Vendor James Davis wrote the accompanying essay “Thirty Dollars, Four Homes, One Conscience” about his own experience on the trucks.