Even after Jean Thomas lost her job and her husband, Sherman, became ill, she said she never missed paying the rent on the West Baltimore house the couple shares with their daughter and four young grandchildren.
Yet after seven years in the rent-subsidized, four-bedroom rowhouse on North Fremont Avenue, the family is bracing to be evicted Tuesday morning.
"I won't have a choice but to leave," said Jean Thomas, adding that her family has nowhere to go. "It's hard to find a place if you don't have a job."
Thomas blames the situation on the actions of her two adult sons. Both have drug-related criminal records, and both have their mother's address listed on arrest records as their residence, though Thomas said they don't live there.
City housing officials, who administer the rent subsidy but don't own the property, say Thomas' sons are unauthorized occupants — grounds for eviction under federal Department of Housing and Urban Development rules.
"HUD has very strict guidelines," Cheron Porter, a spokeswoman for the city housing authority, said Monday. "HUD doesn't want anyone on this property if they're selling drugs."
Grounds for eviction from a HUD-subsidized unit include an unauthorized adult living in the home or someone who commits a crime listing the home as his or her address, Porter said.
The Thomas family's case has drawn the attention of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the housing advocacy group Communities United. Both groups have been helping Thomas fight the eviction by Edgewood Management, manager of the privately owned Townes at the Terraces, which includes public housing and rent-subsidized units. Edgewood representatives did not return phone and email messages Sunday or Monday.
While HUD's zero-tolerance policy was well-intentioned, said Michelle Moore, lead organizer for Communities United, "it should not be used to evict innocent family members unless there is proof that they as residents are causing a nuisance on the property."
"Only in public housing would a whole family, including four children under 10, be punished for the criminal activity of family members who do not live with them," she said.
The scenario is common in evictions from public housing, said Carolyn Johnson, managing attorney for the Homeless Persons Representations Project Inc., a Baltimore nonprofit that provides legal services to the homeless and to those at risk of homelessness.
Many evictions from public or publicly subsidized housing occur when people charged with crimes list relatives' homes as their address even though they don't live there — either because they lack a permanent address or want to avoid a search at their real address, Johnson said.
"The question is ... is that enough information to prove they live there?" Johnson said of addresses given by people charged with crimes. "It is an issue we see a lot of."
Porter said additional factors compound the Thomas family's problems, including a police raid nearly two years ago stemming from one son's arrest. The raid turned up marijuana, among other items, she said.
Jean Thomas said she had no knowledge of drugs ever being present in her home.
On Sunday, Moore and Tessa Hill-Alston, president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, met with the Thomas family and a group of neighbors, urging them to gather Tuesday morning, when sheriff's deputies are expected to arrive to carry out the eviction. Jean Thomas sat on her living room couch fighting back tears, surrounded by neighbors and grandchildren ranging in age from 3 to 8.
Court records show that Thomas' son, Sherman Thomas Jr., listed his mother's address as his address in October 2010 and November 2011, when he was arrested on drug possession charges. Thomas said her son had not lived in the home since 2008. Another son, Girard Newton, listed the same address in January 2011, after he was arrested on second-degree assault charges.
Hill-Alston had hoped to work out a memo of understanding with Edgewood in which Jean Thomas would agree not to permit her sons on the premises. She said that most of the eviction cases she sees involve failure to pay rent but that Thomas has not missed payments.
"This is the worst case I've seen of a person being evicted," Hill-Alston said. "It's a Catch-22. If a city agency allows them to be evicted, what city agency will help solve the problem? There are no shelters for families."
Tessa Hill-Alston's name was incorrect in an earlier version of this article. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.