ANAHEIM, California (Reuters) - It’s home to Disneyland — “the happiest place on earth” — but deputies enforcing home evictions in Anaheim find mold, backed-up plumbing, marijuana crops, abandoned grandparents and the occasional suicide.
Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy Ramona Figueroa says nothing surprises her any more but the job is getting worse, and she hopes the downward slide doesn’t last too much longer.
One common task these days is serving eviction notices to people who have done nothing wrong — who rent properties that have fallen into foreclosure, or are repossessed to recover unpaid debts.
“They are shocked and surprised,” Figueroa said as she went on her rounds. “And here I am giving them a five-day notice and they explain that just five days earlier the homeowner was at the home collecting rent.”
With 17,000 homes going into foreclosure in this Southern California county in the first half of 2009, Figueroa has found her caseload in the last year getting heavier and harder to bear.
Homeowners forced into difficulty often take out their frustration on her when she comes knocking on the door to tell them it is time to leave.
“With the financial situation the way it is, people didn’t get into buying a home with the intentions of losing it,” said Figueroa. “They are disappointed, they are angry.”
California is one of the places hardest hit by foreclosures as hundreds of thousands defaulted on the subprime loans that fueled a buying frenzy. But in the year since the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the number of prime borrowers who are overdue or in foreclosure has also skyrocketed to one in 10.
“When I first started enforcing court orders, I’d see one foreclosure every four or five years, and now I see a foreclosure every day,” said Figueroa, a 25-year veteran of law enforcement.
Another trend on the rise is evictions of single-family homes that are occupied by dozens of people. The harder the slump, the more people cram in together.
“You get in there and where you think you have two to three people, turns out you’ve got 25,” said Figueroa. “I had that in the city of Brea where I was pulling people out of closets and rooms in a four-bedroom, two-bath home.”
The deputies give residents five days’ notice of eviction in person and then return to turn them out. Dan Mendoza, another Orange County deputy, says most people comply and leave the property without incident.
“Eviction is a business disagreement,” said Mendoza as he drove to his next eviction. “No one is here to get hurt.”
But the deputies witness heartwrenching pain. One day, Mendoza has to evict — due to a mortgage foreclosure — a 70-year-old woman named Aida, who only speaks Spanish and cries with worry over her grandchildren’s belongings.
As she clutches her stomach, Mendoza calls the paramedics, just to make sure that Aida “is medically and physically OK.”
Mendoza talks about finding senior citizens, small kids and pitbulls left behind in the homes. Figueroa says many homes are in appalling state, with mold eating through the roof, meat rotting in the refrigerator and animal feces and urine soiling the carpet. One older man was growing marijuana upstairs, another took his life when deputies arrived.
And yet, Figueroa says she loves her job. But in this last year, she has been troubled by the constant shifting of blame that came with the sharp rise in evictions. No one wants to be seen as responsible for this large scale breakdown of people’s lives and dreams.
“I get the property people blaming the real estate people, the real estate people blaming the banks, the banks blaming the homeowners. It is just this vicious circle.
“I think everybody is to blame for getting into this whole mess. It has kind of snowballed.”
Writing by Mary Milliken; editing by Sara Ledwith