Homeless couple in San Francisco employed to deliver eviction notices

In one of the cities worst hit by America’s housing crisis, Thomas Fuller meets a pair who scrape a living through harsh irony

Tuesday 11 February 2020 18:14 GMT
More than 150,000 people are homeless in California
More than 150,000 people are homeless in California (Getty)

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 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.

The couple’s predicament offers a measure of how far-reaching the homelessness crisis has become in California. The evicted are doing the evicting.

It is not their job to change locks or physically remove people from their homes — that is the sheriff’s domain — but several times a week Hebbring and Hansen leave the crowded, trash-filled, homeless encampment in Oakland where they live and travel to cities around the Bay Area: Newark, Millbrae, Fremont, Daly City, East Palo Alto and Hayward among them.

They go mainly by public transport, with a stack of documents. In some cases, they can post the notices on doors. In others, they are required to put them directly into the recipients’ hands.

“I’m sympathetic to their situation because I know what mine is,” Hansen said, bundled up on a rainy and cold winter night outside their trailer. “Look at us. I’m out here sick and homeless.”

Hansen said that despite the couple’s misgivings about delivering eviction notices, their options are limited.

“No one wants to be the one delivering bad news, but pretty much right now it’s our only source of income,” she said.

They have earned around $1,600 (£1200) since they started the work in September, only enough to pay for food and, if they have money left, gas for their sputtering generator.

Homelessness in California has reached record levels; the governor has all but declared an emergency over the issue and is requisitioning shuttered hospitals and fairgrounds to shelter the more than 150,000 homeless people, two-thirds of whom are living on the streets.

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 farther and farther 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 Defence Collaborative, a nonprofit organisation. She estimates that there are around 3,000 evictions a year in San Francisco alone based on the number of cases in court calendars.

But even that estimate does not fully capture the dynamics of the affordability crisis, said 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.

They say the economy is doing good, but people can’t pay the rent

Roy Cordeiro, owner of a company that serves evictions

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

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

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

For 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 Hebbring and 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, Hebbring and Hansen have delivered dozens of documents. 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, said 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,” Cordeiro said.

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

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

Cordeiro charges $175 (£135) per delivery. By contrast, the legal document company that hires Hebbring and Hansen pays them $30 (£23) if they post a document and $50 (£38) 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 speciality chocolates, designer eyewear and gleaming Japanese kitchen knives.

At a four-story apartment on a tree-lined street, 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, 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 neighbourhood on the southern edge of the city.

At a few minutes past 9pm, Hebbring, wearing a faded NFL 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.

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 (£104) a month, a tiny sum by San Francisco standards, where the median rent is above $4,000 (£3090). The tenant was ordered to pay two months’ rent 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 Hebbring. “We are trying to keep her from being homeless.”

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

Hansen said 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.’”

The New York Times

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in