By Aram Roston, NBC News Producer
The idea of last night's Nightly News story where NBC's Chief Justice Correspondent Pete Williams accompanied a Virginia sheriff as he served eviction notices was to capture the grim moment when people are forced out of the homes they think of as their own. The homes were foreclosed, the mortgages were unpaid and it is the moment when a family's American dream is taken away. The statistics of foreclosure are staggering, and each human story is a tragedy.
The people with the unhappy assignment of enforcing the court order are often deputy sheriffs. In Virginia, I rode first with Deputy Sheriff William Cenac, of the Fairfax County Sheriff's civil enforcement division, on a foreclosure eviction. "These are working people...these are working people," he said as he drove to the house.
He says his arrival is usually greeted with shock. In a sense, he says, "At this point in your life, everything that you know to be is over, your house, your yard, whatever. It's the property of the bank and you need to leave. I don't think it's any different than your house burning down. Everything's gone. All your things are placed on the public right of way. It's helplessness: Where are you gonna go? Where are you gonna take your family? And you are still going to work every day."
To listen to a sheriff's deputy who handles evictions is an eye opener. "It's very silent the way it is. You live in a development, even in my neighborhood, where I live. You see these people, you see them cut the grass. And then all of a sudden it's like, 'Hey, where'd they go?' They move out in the middle of the night, leaving whole houses. I have three foreclosures on the street where I live."
Cenac points out it's a long process. The bank must petition the court for a summons, and then there is more paperwork, and more warnings. And any homeowner who is being evicted gets a 72-hour notice posted on the door, notifying him when it will happen. Many people manage to leave their homes on time. But some don't.
"One I did in the early spring," Cenac says, "I served the document to the defendant in person. I said, 'Look, this is a 3000 square-foot townhome, you probably want to move before this happens, or at least gets together BEFORE.' But the day of the execution of this order I went out the property and the defendant is still there, and I said, 'Wow, I thought you would have been gone.' And she said, 'I don't have anywhere to go. I sent my kids to live with my sister and I'm just here and I don't know what to do."
Empty homes, changed lives
But in many cases the former owner of the home is gone by the time Cenac gets there. That's what happened this time. When we arrived at the townhome Cenac and another deputy walked in, guns drawn. The place was empty, except for some children's toys the former owner left behind.
The next week Pete Williams and I and a camera crew headed out with sheriff's deputies of Prince William County. Deputy Mark Hurd was a veteran of the eviction process, who says it gets harder as he gets older, because of the emotional trauma of evictions. "It's tough to look in somebody's face," he says on camera. "You can see the anguish in their eyes. You can see what they're going through." Deputy Hurd says when he shows up reality finally sets on the scene. "Here comes a guy wtih a gun and a uniform and he's getting ready to ask me to leave my property!"
We accompanied Hurd to a home in Manassas, Va. The man he was evicting had lived there ten years with his wife and three children. He had thought he'd retire in the three-bedroom rambler, set in the woods. He'd also had his warnings that he needed to leave but he was not ready. He cried a little in the interview, and said he felt he'd let down his family.
But the finances of this mortgage had not worked out. After refinancing the home he said, and an illness, he was stuck last year with a $4800 a month payment he could not afford. Things went downhill from there.
But the cold inevitabilty of the eviction became clear as a locksmith changed the locks.
So the man who had intended to spend his life in the home did what he could to preserve his dignity and his belongings, gathering together his possessions and bringing them outside to truck away.