On a Thursday afternoon, two men — one in a lavender shirt and paisley tie, and the other in a pale blue shirt and plaid tie — stepped out of a white Ford minivan and knocked on the door of a home in the Bayview.
A woman answered the door, and, prompted by their questions, revealed a laundry list of problems: she recently had been robbed and raped, and was being evicted for the $2,000 she owed in rent.
“Do you have a place to go?” one of the men inquired.
The woman, a mother of a 14-year-old girl, shook her head and asked who they were.
“We are from Eviction Assistance,” said the man with the plaid tie, Deputy Diego Perez.
“We are from the Sheriff’s Office,” added Deputy Joe Crittle, revealing what their dress and vehicle were intended to disguise. “Is that a surprise?”
“Kind of? Sort of?” the woman said with a smile, accepting a brochure with referrals for housing, social services and legal assistance.
“All right, good luck to you,” Perez said.
With that, the two men went back to their minivan and moved on to the next eviction site on their list.
ONE OF A KIND
Together, Crittle and Perez form the one-and-a-half-man Eviction Assistance Unit of the Sheriff’s Department.
The unit, according to the Sheriff’s Department, is the first and only one of its kind in California.
“The Sheriff’s Department was not designed — none of them are in the state — to be a housing facilitator or temporary shelter facilitator,” Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi told The San Francisco Examiner. “And that is exactly the role that we have attached.”
On weekdays, except for Wednesdays, the two men drive to anywhere from one to a couple of dozen residences in The City going through court-ordered evictions. These include evictions related to the Ellis Act, nonpayment, owner move-ins or foreclosures. The unit is there to assess tenants’ situation and help them find a place to go.
On Wednesdays, when the Sheriff’s Department carries out evictions, the assistance unit’s job is to patrol and advise deputies of potential problem situations.
“There aren’t any [eviction assistance units] anywhere. From what we know, we’re the only ones in the state,” Crittle said. “We got a call from Cook County, Fla. They were all interested. There have been other agencies that have wanted to do a ride-along.”
Crittle, 52, who has worked in the unit full time for almost a decade, said they walk a “fine line.”
“We do not help people not to be evicted,” he said. “We refer people to services that they might not know exist.”
The team regularly refers people to services that are offered through programs such as the Eviction Defense Collaborative on Market Street; Tenderloin Housing Clinic on Hyde Street; and Swords to Plowshares on Howard Street, which they make sure is open before recommending it to an evicted veteran.
The deputies say they’ve seen it all, but never know what they’re up against.
“If you’ve seen the show ‘Hoarders,’ that is literally what we do,” said Perez, 30. “Open the door and there’s feces piled up, they’re using the toilet as a sink, there’s bedbugs jumping off furniture. It’s to the point where it becomes almost a hazmat situation. I get out and have to burn my clothes, carry a can of Lysol.”
The scenes, according to Crittle, can resemble a Hollywood horror movie.
“Then we have the little old lady with newspapers from 50 years ago and she has dead cats that she couldn’t bear to part with,” Crittle said. “And the worst instance — two dead bodies on the same day.”
The mark of a successful day, according to Crittle, is making contact with the evictees.
“It doesn’t matter to me what the contact is,” Crittle said. “I would prefer something that would actually help them versus a 5150 [involuntary psychiatric hold], but we get them the help they need, whether it was the help they wanted or not. That is the whole point.”
THE GROWING ISSUE
The Eviction Assistance Unit was the brainchild of Mirkarimi’s predecessor, Sheriff Michael Hennessey, in 1980 and follows a tradition of San Francisco sheriffs who hesitated to carry out court-ordered evictions. In 1977, Sheriff Richard Hongisto served five days in jail for refusing to execute a massive eviction order at the International Hotel in the former Manilatown — a fight that led to The City’s rent-control laws and many of its tenant protections.
Over time, the workload of the unit has grown. Last year, the department posted 1,318 notices to vacate, executed 998 evictions and provided about 2,040 referrals to those evictees, Mirkarimi noted in a letter to Mayor Ed Lee dated Oct. 3. The sheriff, who expanded the unit from one deputy to the one-and-a-half he has now, requested a full-time clinical outreach worker for the unit in the 2013-14 budget.
Perez spends half of his time on the unit and the other half processing paperwork, such as restraining orders in the civil division.
“Based on trend, our EAU staffing is insufficient and ill-equipped to assist qualified individuals and families who may be at risk of becoming homeless,” Mirkarimi wrote in the letter.
And there are other needs. The unit’s minivan, equipped with a Central Police Station scanner, law enforcement gear and the ability to transport evictees, has far outlasted police vehicles that normally stay in circulation for three to four years.
“She’s falling apart,” Crittle said. “The unit has evolved over the years but it’s pretty much the same thing.”
On the October afternoon , Crittle and Perez made 10 stops — two in the Tenderloin, one in the South of Market neighborhood, two in the Mission and five in the Bayview.
At one Bayview apartment, Perez offered assistance in Spanish. Crittle took stickers from his clipboard and gave them to the children.
As they headed back to their van, one of the male tenants followed them out to ask one more question and thank them for their help.
“Muchísimas gracias,” the evictee said, meaning “many thanks.” “Gracias por la ayuda,” he added, which translates to, “Thank you for the help.”
Perez said that although their services are not always utilized, the people they assist always say thank you.
“Because we allow them to vent,” he said. “Nobody wants to hear their sad story, because all evictions are sad stories.”