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Homeless, They Searched for Steady Work. They Found It: Evicting Others.

Homeless, They Searched for Steady Work. They Found It: Evicting Others.

SAN FRANCISCO — After two months of missed rent, it was the knock on the door that the family had been dreading. Eviction brought the prospect of homelessness after months of living on the brink.

But little did they know that the man handing over the eviction documents, John Hebbring, was homeless himself.

“Believe me, we see the irony,” said Mr. Hebbring, whose job it is to deliver eviction notices with his girlfriend, Kim Hansen. Together they live in a 50-year-old trailer infested by rats.

Like many of their neighbors, the couple scratch around for ways to make money — working and being homeless is a growing reality across the nation. He sometimes fixes cars. She pokes around for odd jobs. Focus groups, medical trials. “We went on a treadmill for 15 minutes and wore a watch on our wrist. Got $165 per person,” Ms. Hansen said, detailing one of the more lucrative ones. She came across the eviction process server gig on Craigslist.

Evictions brought on by rising rents have helped reshape the demographics of Northern California. The wealthy have concentrated in the bull’s-eye of the Bay Area — in and around San Francisco — and those who cannot afford the rent have shifted to the outer rings, to towns further and further away.

There is no reliable eviction data in California because most records are sealed, according to Carolyn Gold, director of litigation and policy at the Eviction Defense Collaborative, a nonprofit organization. She estimates that there are around 3,000 evictions a year in San Francisco alone based on the number of cases in court calendars.

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Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times
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Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

But even that estimate does not fully capture the dynamics of the affordability crisis, says Leah Simon-Weisberg, one of the leading tenant attorneys in the Bay Area.

“At some point people are involuntarily pushed out from where they are living, whether it is through the legal process or not,” she said.

Annual surveys carried out by cities try to quantify how people become homeless. The leading causes in San Francisco in 2019 were losing a job (26 percent), alcohol or drug use (18 percent), eviction (13 percent), arguments among family or friends (12 percent), mental health problems (8 percent), and divorce or breakup (5 percent), according to city data.

But for Mr. Hebbring and Ms. Hansen — and many other people without homes across the country — those categories tend to blend together.

For Ms. Hansen it was the combination of a fractured family, a mother who got hooked on methamphetamines and natural disasters: Twice Ms. Hansen had her home burn in wildfires.

For Mr. Hebbring it was repeated encounters with the criminal justice system — both he and his father went to prison for selling drugs at separate times — and the sudden death of his wife eight years ago that forced his eviction from their home.

I met with Mr. Hebbring and Ms. Hansen a dozen times over the past four months and followed them on their eviction document deliveries. In a soaking rain we walked to a FedEx shop in Oakland where the store manager downloaded and printed the documents for $1.37.

Since they accepted their first freelance gig for the legal services company in September, Mr. Hebbring and Ms. Hansen have delivered dozens of documents. Ms. Hansen maps the locations on her phone before they head out.

“What a way to get to know my way around,” she joked.

Roy Cordeiro, the owner of a process serving company in the Bay Area, says the number of eviction notices he serves has increased from a couple each week to, more recently, a couple every day.

Despite the soaring stock market and the lowest unemployment rates in decades, hundreds of thousands of Americans are falling with no one to catch them.

“They say the economy is doing good but people can’t pay the rent,” Mr. Cordeiro said.

Mr. Cordeiro says several thousand people are registered as process servers in the Bay Area and hundreds more do it without a license.

“There are a lot of Mickey Mouse operators out there,” he said.

Mr. Cordeiro charges $175 per delivery. By contrast, the legal document company that hires Mr. Hebbring and Ms. Hansen pays them $30 if they post a document and $50 if they hand it directly to the person served.

On a chilly evening we went to an apartment in the Mission District of San Francisco, walking past restaurants teeming with the young and attractive. Nearby were boutiques on Valencia Street selling specialty chocolates, designer eyewear and gleaming Japanese kitchen knives.

At a four-story apartment on a tree-lined street, Mr. Hebbring could not find the tenant he was looking for so he posted the notice on the superintendent’s door.

For their next set of documents, Ms. Hansen called a friend who sleeps in his car to ask for a lift. It was for a delivery at Hunters Point, a lower-income neighborhood on the southern edge of the city.

At a few minutes past 9 p.m., Mr. Hebbring, wearing a faded N.F.L. jersey and a jacket, knocked at the apartment listed on the documents.

He carried a small digital camera in case no one answered and he needed proof that he had taped the papers onto the door.

A woman answered, looking confused.

Mr. Hebbring read out the name listed on the documents.

“I’m her mother,” the woman replied.

The apartment, which was subject to rent control, went for $135 a month, a tiny sum by San Francisco standards, where the median rent is above $4,000. The tenant was ordered to pay two months’ rent, $270, or leave within three days.

The woman explained that her daughter had lost her job as a driver, was strapped for cash and was planning to move out. Her father was out of the picture.

“She’s been going through a lot,” the woman told Mr. Hebbring. “We are trying to keep her from being homeless.”

Mr. Hebbring handed over the documents and walked back to the car, where he rejoined Ms. Hansen. He shook his head at the idea that someone would be unable to pay $270.

Ms. Hansen says she wonders how many people they serve papers to end up homeless. Maybe she will see them on the streets someday or in the vacant lot where they sleep in Oakland.

“I almost want to tell them, ‘If you get kicked out, I’ve got a spot right here next to me.’”


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