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Is There Such a Thing as a Humane Eviction?

CHICOPEE, Mass. — The tenants in the third-floor apartment had 30 minutes to leave.

Deputies from the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department — in black uniforms, with bulletproof vests and gold star badges — had climbed the back stairs with an eviction notice.

The tenants — 22 and 23, in matching Tommy Hilfiger sweatshirts and Crocs — were exhausted and dazed. They had stuffed some of their possessions into trash bags and suitcases, but much of what they owned would be left behind, in mounds on the floor.

“I’m sorry it’s so messy,” said one of the women. In those last moments before becoming homeless, she stood at the sink, carefully washing out the baby bottles they used to feed their puppy.

As they stepped back to give the women room, the officers talked among themselves, considering what it means to evict tenants in December 2020. They felt uneasy about it.

“I really don’t think people should be displaced, certainly during a pandemic,” said one of the officers, Lt. Michael Goldberg. “Five months ago we stopped evictions because of what was going on in the world, and now we’re moving forward with evictions, when it’s still going on, if not worse.”

With a federal moratorium set to lapse on Dec. 31, America’s vast eviction machine is gradually coming back online, allowing landlords to get rid of nonpaying tenants.

The coronavirus struck in a country already chronically short of affordable housing. Now, after a summer of catastrophic job loss, 6.7 million adults are likely to face eviction or foreclosure in the next two months, according to the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey.

But evictions are resuming under unprecedented scrutiny. If displacing households was considered unsafe in September, when contagion rates were lower than they are now, is it an acceptable risk at this point? Won’t the virus just spread faster if evicted tenants end up in shelters?

One person grappling with these questions is Nicholas Cocchi, the sheriff of Hampden County, in western Massachusetts.

Sheriff Cocchi, who has the gleaming scalp and tree-trunk neck of a central-casting lawman, presides over Springfield, a city where nearly 27 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. His predecessor was a former social worker, and Sheriff Cocchi has carried on that progressive tradition, branching out into services to reintegrate former inmates and treat addiction. Last year, his department carried out 724 evictions, two or three a day.

Sheriff Cocchi has worried for weeks about resuming evictions, searching for ways to make them “respectful and humane.”

“As a human, not a sheriff — not as an elected official but as a human being — if it is part of the ecosystem, I get it, but that doesn’t mean we let people decay and rot,” Sheriff Cocchi said. “Our goal is not to have this critically bad negative impact.”

His main idea is to work intensively with tenants his department is preparing to evict, offering a last big push to find them alternative housing. If worse comes to worst, he said, he would provide them with short-term shelter.

“You’re not going to sleep in your car tonight,” he said. “I can give you a place that night. So you’re not outside. In the cold. In the rain. In your car. Or a park bench. I can do that. It’s my job. I believe I owe that to you.”

The two women in the third-floor unit in Chicopee provided the sheriff with a test case.

The women, who asked not to be identified because they were embarrassed by the situation, had lost their jobs in a scented-candle factory in December 2019, and had not paid their rent since then, they said. A judge had ordered their eviction in March, but then Massachusetts imposed a strict moratorium, halting the removal for six months.

The couple had been unable to find steady work during the pandemic. They spent their days in the apartment, distracting themselves with social media and adult coloring books, as the eviction process inched forward.

Then the state moratorium ended, and some of the cases from before the pandemic were allowed to progress. Suddenly, it was bearing down on them.

Though they had family nearby, they could not stay with them because their relatives did not approve of same-sex relationships.

“Honestly, I’ve got no place to go,” said one of the women. “I’m going to be on the street. When I was 18, I left home, but I managed to have friends I could stay with here and there.”

This time it was different. She was making call after call, she said, but “everyone I spoke to said no because of Covid.”

Sheriffs are the ones who see evictions firsthand, and at moments of crisis in American housing markets, they have occasionally sounded an alarm.

In 2008, Thomas J. Dart, the sheriff of Cook County, Ill., announced he would stop evicting tenants from foreclosed properties, arguing that foreclosing banks were routinely failing to give tenants the required 120-day notice.

His moratorium lasted for about a week and a half, but it received nationwide attention and led to reforms: Chicago passed legislation requiring banks to compensate renters should they foreclose the building.

“Here is someone in law enforcement saying, ‘This is so unfair, I can’t keep doing this’ — you don’t expect it,” said John Bartlett, executive director of Chicago’s Metropolitan Tenants Organization. “They are on the ground doing it, so they’re the ones that see the awful impact of eviction. In some ways, everyone else is at arm’s length.”

As swaths of the American economy shut down this spring to slow the spread of the coronavirus, a handful of sheriffs once again balked, declaring their own moratoriums.

In September, the Trump administration largely took the question off the table, announcing a four-month halt in eviction proceedings, put forward by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When that order expires on Dec. 31, millions of stalled cases will move forward, though some will be sent to mediation or deferred by emergency rental assistance.

Sheriff Cocchi has eyed this approaching bulge apprehensively because when it arrives, he will be in the middle of it.

On one hand, he is up for re-election in Hampden County in 2022, and evictions are not popular. The tenants’ rights movement has taken on a new energy, and a local housing activist, Rose Webster-Smith, is tracking each case through the courts, gearing up if necessary to stage eviction blockades, which typically draw crowds and reporters.

At the same time, landlords are lined up for Sheriff Cocchi’s services: Since late October, when the moratorium in Massachusetts lapsed, his process servers have delivered 1,062 notices to quit, the first of three official warnings that precede an eviction.

“I would love to be one of those guys who can run from that, but what is the sheriff? He’s a law enforcer,” Sheriff Cocchi said. “As a law enforcer, my job is to do what I’m asked to do. There’s a lot of things I don’t like to do.”

The deputies who deliver notices sometimes lodge the document in the door, but they frequently get a chance to size up tenants.

They are often older or living with disabilities, deeply in denial about what is about to happen, said Robert Hoffman Jr., the department’s chief deputy.

“The desperation, the loneliness, you know, the denial,” said Chief Hoffman, who leads the county’s civil process division. “That’s one of the more difficult elements of the job. People that feel if they avoid it, everything will just go away.”

They have all seen cases so bleak that they cannot forget them. John Izzo, a housing specialist with the department, ticked off some of the worst ones as he drove to the Chicopee eviction.

There was the 80-year-old man who had stopped taking his insulin as his eviction approached. They found him unresponsive in his bathtub when they arrived. The 71-year-old woman with dementia, so confused and forlorn that they brought her back to the office and sang songs to her. And a few weeks ago there was the woman who, because the shelters were full, ended up sleeping on a couch in her storage unit.

The tenants in Chicopee would not be one of those grim cases, or that was what Mr. Izzo was hoping.

He had spent a few days on the phone, trying to find a new landlord willing to accept them, but he needed more time: Even without the black mark of an eviction, their household income was around $1,300 a month, one tenant’s unemployment benefits. Area landlords generally require tenants to have an income three times the monthly rent.

“A person who cannot work, looking for an apartment, it’s impossible,” Mr. Izzo said.

What he managed to secure for the night was space at a shelter, one he described as “really plush.”

None of this, he allowed, fell into the traditional duties of law enforcement. “That’s the thing about this, the sheriff has a heart of gold,” he said, as the deputies headed up the stairs.

But many question the notion that any eviction could be humane.

Timothy Scalona will never forget the day in 2012 when a sheriff’s deputy knocked on the door and his family home in Wilmington, Mass., was foreclosed. He was 14. They had a few hours to decide what to take with them. His mother stood in the yard, crying, begging the official from the sheriff’s office to let them stay. “It was a hard thing to watch,” he said. “That was the lowest I saw her.”

What was worse, though, were the eight years that followed. Mr. Scalona, his parents and his six younger siblings began a new life, shuttling between crowded rooms in cheap motels and short-term subsidized housing.

The motels did not all have stoves, so they ate meals that could be microwaved, canned ravioli and frozen potpies. Some shelter placements were so far from their schools that there were periods when the family drove 200 miles a day. Mr. Scalona’s siblings, exhausted and anxious, fell behind in school.

Now a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, he has recurring nightmares about the eviction.

But not because the sheriff or his deputies were unkind.

“As far as I remember, he was very compassionate,” he said. “I just think the whole process itself is so traumatic, I don’t know how the sheriff can prevent that.”

Recent research, especially the work of the sociologist Matthew Desmond, has shown that an eviction puts an indelible mark on renting families, making it difficult for them to get jobs, rent apartments or receive federal housing assistance for years afterward.

Mr. Scalona’s family was one of those that was never able to fully climb back from that first eviction; this winter, his parents are again facing eviction.

While his mother recalls the sheriff from 2012 with some gratitude for his understanding that day, he cannot manage to see it that way. The sheriff, Mr. Scalona said, is “executing a system that is targeting and harming poor people.”

“The person I associate with delivering that eviction notice wasn’t the mortgage company,” he said. “It was the sheriff.”

As the two women loaded their possessions into a car, their landlady, in a camel-colored coat and high leather boots, was pacing on the sidewalk. Her frustration with the tenants had mounted over the six months of the moratorium. She was furious.

She had kept up her own tax and insurance payments throughout the shutdown, she said, and she was sure the tenants could have paid her with government rental assistance if they had made more of an effort. As far as she was concerned, they could live under a bridge.

Landlords across the state are facing similar problems, said Douglas Quattrochi, the executive director of Mass Landlords, which represents independent property owners. One in five of his members say they have nonpaying tenants, and many are putting their properties on the market, he said.

From the third-floor porch, Mr. Izzo, the housing specialist from the Sheriff’s Department, was eyeing the situation warily.

He was worried that hostility between the landlady and her tenants would turn physical. He urged the tenants to ignore the landlady, to get in their car and leave.

“I said, ‘I’m going to talk to you like you’re my sister,’” he said. “I said, ‘Swallow your pride, put your head up in the air, take a deep breath, and don’t let that lady get under your skin.’”

She struck him as someone with a future, he said.

“I don’t want to see her get into any more trouble,” he said. “She’s got a long life ahead of her, she’s well-spoken, she’s likable. I think she could do well.”

Mr. Izzo had offered to drive the women to the shelter. It would be a comfort, in a way, to know they had a safe place to stay. A blizzard was expected to move into the city overnight, and the virus was now surging aggressively through the state.

But a few hours before they were to be evicted, the two women had told Mr. Izzo they did not need his help. They were vague about the details — a friend had suddenly emerged with an offer of a place to stay, they said. They filled up their borrowed S.U.V., every inch of it crammed with plastic bags and cardboard boxes, the puppy shivering between them in the front seat.

And then they were gone.

It would be hard to say exactly what happened to the tenants after that. They were in touch with Mr. Izzo sporadically but would not say where they were.

Mr. Izzo kept working on the case, and a week later, he thought he might have found a landlord willing to accept them. Two weeks later, he was still looking.

“I’m not going to let them go,” he said. “I’m going to keep offering them things.”

Back in his office, Sheriff Cocchi declared himself satisfied with the day’s work.

“Yes, property owners need to be paid, yes, the moratorium is over,” he said. “But people are still very sensitive to understanding, what is the end action? You remove and then where do they go?”

He hoped, in the coming weeks, that courts and landlords would opt for mediation — “spurts of humanitarian acts,” as he put it — so that he would be carrying out as few evictions as possible.

“The housing court is inserting themselves into a position of — what’s the word — not mercy, but of understanding,” he said. “OK, I can remove them. But to what detriment? Is it better for public safety? No. Is it better for public health? No. What’s the benefit here?”

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