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Eviction crews collect tons of troubled stories


Leonard A. Burke is shouting. He has to. Just a few feet behind him, a compactor is putting 1,000 pounds of pressure on a metal bed frame and bending it with the ease of a child twisting a paper clip.

Whoever owned the frame and the rest of the household goods being destroyed promised to come get them at the city's "Down Under Yard" but never did. Now, the deadline has passed and a Department of Public Works crew has tossed the stuff into the compactor. Metal squeals under the pressure. Wood snaps.

"Somebody's life savings, gone. It's gone. Have to start over again," says Burke, matter of fact, the sharp crack of shattering glass filling the air. "Do I feel sad? No. I can't, because if I let my emotions get hold of me, I'd be caught up in a rut with them."

Down Under Yard, a patch of southern Baltimore under an Interstate 95 overpass, is headquarters for the city's eviction service. Thousands of people are evicted each year, their belongings dumped in gutters , the plastic bags, old toys and pieces of furniture piled up in mute testimony. Most of it is carted off and buried in the city landfill. Some ends up here in temporary storage.

Burke, evictions supervisor in the waste maintenance division of DPW's Bureau of Solid Waste, has seen it all.

"I've been doing evictions for six years, and I know eviction. Anybody knows eviction, I do, " he says, his voice brimming with confidence and enthusiasm. "I loved when I got into [the Bureau of Solid Waste], because I love to keep things clean."

Overall, evictions are down this year, with 4,500 legal ones recorded through the end of July. That's a huge drop since the mid-1990s, when yearly totals were as high as 12,000 and daily evictions ran as high 150. Now, the daily court-ordered evictions run between 40 and 50 households put out every weekday, except when it is raining, snowing or the temperature dips below 32. Last month, there were 882 evictions and 51 foreclosures.

Cleaning up this stuff falls to the crews at Down Under. Each morning, crew members get a list of evictions, foreclosures and requests for temporary storage. Burke supervises the crews working on three trucks on the west side of the city.

Evictions happen everywhere, though usually in the poorer neighborhoods, where a pile of belongings dumped in the street is as common as a block of abandoned houses. Burke, 50, says he has learned never to judge others, whether they're evicted in Remington or foreclosed on in Roland Park.

"I still consider you as a citizen. You are the public," he says. "I don't deal with the furniture. That don't mean nothing to me. I'm dealing with the individual. You are a human being. That stuff is immaterial."

There is so much stuff, 278 tons collected and dumped in August.

"It taught me a lesson not to save stuff," says Burke, who looks a lot like Roc in the television show starring Charles Dutton - the same stocky build, same shaved head. "If you don't use something in a year's time, you're not going to use it. I've seen so much stuff come out of these people's houses that they don't need."

That stuff has to be off the street within 48 hours. If it's on a main thoroughfare or a narrow side street, it has to be gone by sundown. Usually, it ends up in the city landfill on Quarantine Road.

But for $1 a day, it can be stored in one of the 20 bins at the Down Under Yard, off of South Hanover Street near McComas Street.

Two compactors able to crush and carry 8 or 9 tons of household goods are on the lot, along with other trucks, storage bins, steel containers used for neighborhood cleanups and a converted mobile home that serves as the home office for 41 city employees.

A CSX line runs on the other side of a chain-link fence. Concrete pillars anchor the highway that looms 100 feet overhead.

For an initial $30 fee, the city will hold the belongings there for 10 days for someone who has been evicted, 30 days for someone foreclosed on.

If the belongings aren't picked up by the deadline, the bin is unlocked, the compactor is backed up to the door and within 10 minutes the accumulated stuff of a lifetime is headed for the landfill.

That's the only recourse. Nobody else wants it, not the Salvation Army, not Goodwill Industries. About 70 percent of those who opt for storage never claim their belongings.

The routine is unending.

Every morning, sheriff's deputies serve eviction notices on tenants, then take one piece of furniture from each residence and put it in the street. Then, the landlord's workmen haul the rest of the belongings to the curb. The city crews pick up whatever hasn't been retrieved by the owners or stolen by passers-by.

It can be a filthy job. People live all kinds of ways and save all sorts of things. The crews are regularly fumigating the trucks, themselves and the storage bins. In a world where heartbreak is the norm, they try to keep their emotions in check.

"I feel sorry for the kids," says Thomas Brown, 56, who has worked on evictions for 13 years. "I say 70 percent of the evictions we see the syringes and the little capsules, and the worst thing is they leave behind the pictures of the kids."

The crews are full of stories about the biggest eviction piles ever seen - stuff piled high as the second-story of a rowhouse, they say - or the worst evictions, such as the guy with more than 60 televisions and the aged mother and son whose toilet hadn't worked for months.

Burke is on the street Tuesday through Saturday, methodically working his way through West Baltimore, putting 40, 50, 60 miles a day on his city pickup. He checks the size of eviction piles and the locations of his crews because, he says, "You can't learn nothing in the office."

"It ain't that you don't trust your crew. Some of the crews, you can put a dollar down and that dollar will stay there. Other ones, you put down a dollar and you'll end up with a quarter," he says. "'I'm about my work. They may say I'm hard, but I'm fair."

When Burke is out, he wants people working, not lolling around where they shouldn't be, parked in front of a package store or in a known drug area, for example.

"No, I don't play that. They know I don't play that. Don't come to me with that," he says. "The Down Under Yard is the best there is as far as that. That's why some of them don't want to come to the Down Under Yard because they know I don't play that."

His father, Leon Burke, taught him about honest work when he was growing up in the 800 block of W. Lafayette Ave. with seven brothers and a sister.

By age 7, he was selling paper shopping bags outside Hollins Market for a nickel apiece. He was a state corrections officer for a while but didn't like spending his days with criminals. He drove a van for the city. When the funding for that job died, he pushed a hokey cart around West North Avenue and North Monroe Street.

"I didn't like it, but I did it because I had to work," he says. "But I felt I was more intelligent than to be sweeping streets."

Four months later, he transferred to a trash truck, then found himself in evictions. Now, he's a supervisor with a clipboard and business cards.

On one hot August afternoon, he pulls up by a pile in the 2400 block of Etting St. The crew is at work. A neighbor walks over, holding an engine part plucked from the pile.

"It's a shame," he says.

"I can't say it's a shame," says Burke. "I see this every day."

"You know," says the neighbor. "Don't live like the Joneses. Live like your pocketbook says."

"Yeah, well, you never know what a person's situation is," Burke says, as another neighbor grabs a stroller.

Later, he makes a quick trip to Northeast Baltimore, where Nedera Chapman, 32, has been evicted from an apartment complex on Edgepark Road. Her children, ages 12, 6 and 4, and some friends watch over her belongings.

"When they knocked on the door, the tears started to flow," says Chapman. "I'm trying to get myself out of here in a decent fashion." Burke offers her a business card and tells her she can have her stuff stored for 10 days.

Burke has heard allegations that city crews steal stuff. As far as he's concerned, that's not only illegal, but it also earns the workers a bad reputation.

"This is the way I look at it," he says. "If you get set out and I take something, I may be picking up some of your bad luck. I don't want none of it."

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