On a balmy June morning, members of the Cook County Eviction, Levy & Warrant Unit arrive at a 16th floor apartment in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood.
A deputy pounds on the door 11 times: “Sheriff’s office!”
A maintenance man unlocks the maroon door.
A team of five deputies enter the apartment, a one-bedroom residence with a small kitchen and bathroom. Inside, a 70-year-old man in a T-shirt and shorts sits at a cluttered folding table in the living room as his 13-year-old son sleeps on a nearby bed.
“Do you know why we’re here today?” a deputy asks.
“I can imagine,” the man answers.
The sound of the deputies searching the apartment rouses the boy from his bed in the living room. He puts on his pants and looks on in silence as his father answers questions a few feet away.
A deputy asks the man if he received help from a social worker. He says he got a letter from her, and called, but didn’t pursue service because he didn’t think they help.
“Well, they came out for a home visit, and you weren’t here … Based on that, without being able to contact you on a home visit, they went ahead and sent this through,” a deputy says as he gestures to an eviction order.
The man says he planned to move next month.
“Well, unfortunately, we are here today,” the deputy says.
The father and son gather their belongings. The boy moves deliberately—silent and stone-faced.
A deputy asks the boy if he has any school books.
“I’m not in school,” he replies.
“You’re out for the summer?” the deputy asks.
“I don’t talk to police” the boy says.
A deputy spots a mountain bike leaning against the back wall of the living room and asks the boy if he would like to take it. The boy does not reply.
The boy, now losing his home and his bicycle, keeps a poker face as he moves through the apartment to collect the essentials—a phone, wallet and toothbrush.
About 20 minutes later, the father, son and sheriff’s officers leave the apartment. The maintenance man changes the lock and a deputy slaps a neon green “No Trespassing” sign on the door.
Forced evictions in Cook County have been on the rise since the Great Recession, but Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart is trying to ease that process for tenants by offering social services, like finding alternative living arrangements, before deputies come knocking on the door.
Researchers say this rise is not just a Chicago trend and incomes for the poor have flatlined as rents have climbed across the country. (Photo illustration by Paula Friedrich and Patrick Smith/WBEZ)
LT. ERIK MACKOWIAC
Sheriff’s Lt. Erik Mackowiac has a reclining office chair in a cramped room in the basement of the Juvenile Temporary Detention Center on Chicago’s West Side.
On this morning, Mackowiac reclines back as far as the chair will allow.
Mackowiac, 47, has spent the last 21 years working for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office—mostly in the Eviction, Levy & Warrant Unit. He was promoted to lieutenant in 2011 and now leads a team of 40 deputies focused on evictions.
In the 1990s, the sheriff’s office sent two deputies and a moving crew to evict residents. Today, four-person teams go to the homes “and now we don’t move any of the defendant’s property out,” Mackowiac said.
Social workers are sent to homes if there is an occupant younger than 14, older than 65 or anybody with a physical or mental illness. As a result, many tenants are moved out by the time the court-ordered eviction is to be enforced.
Sheriff Tom Dart calls these “social service evictions.” He says these types of evictions are up about 35 percent in 2016 compared to last year.
“The houses we’re going to, proportionately, we’re needing much more services than ever before,” Dart says.
Mackowiac has seen hundreds of evictions.
Photo illustration by Paula Friedrich and Patrick Smith/WBEZ
With a wide frame and a Polish last name, Mackowiac is almost the quintessential Chicago cop. But his background is different from most officers.
Mackowiac was born in Houston but lived in Saudi Arabia from age 3 to 17.
He says he spent his formative years in a compound for oil-industry employees and their families. He was raised next to a diverse variety of Saudi Arabian, British and Egyptian families.
Mackowiac said his family moved backed to the United States in 1986, and the experience piqued his interest in the military and international law. He joined the sheriff’s office in 1995.
After 7:30 a.m. roll call, the deputies pick up Tasers from a charging station. A loud zap echoes through the room as each is tested.
Later, Mackowiac tells the deputies to “be safe” and takes the escalators to his police car.
For the eviction unit, safety means being on the lookout for more than just violent confrontations.
“We [had] an eviction a number of years ago in a trailer park, and there was knee-high garbage in the trailer, and there was a 14-foot boa sliding under the garbage,” Mackowiac says.
Mackowiac takes the escalator to the parking lot, gets into an unmarked black sedan and drives south to meet a four-person team doing a social-service eviction at a second-floor apartment near Midway International Airport.
When Mackowiac arrives on the Southwest Side, the eviction team informs him the landlord is a no-show.
Sheriff’s office policy mandates a landlord or representative, like an attorney or building manager, be present for the sheriff’s office to enforce an eviction.
This usually is not a problem, Mackowiac says. If a landlord is motivated to go through the court process, they usually show up for the eviction team.
On this morning, a deputy calls the landlord and gets no answer. They wait 15 minutes and move on.
The unit then heads northeast to an apartment building in Bronzeville.
Mackowiac drives fast but not aggressively, with the ease of someone who spends a lot of time driving city streets. A police vest makes the bulky lieutenant look even larger, and his chest nearly touches the steering wheel.
Mackowiac pulls in behind two marked sheriff’s cars in a circle driveway behind the apartment building. It is a big building with a manager who is always on site, so there’s no chance the soon-to-be evicted tenant gets a reprieve.
The unit talks with the manager in her office on the first floor, then crowds into an elevator with a building maintenance man. The group gets off on the 16th floor and walks to an apartment just left of the elevator.
The group waits in the hallway for a moment, then a deputy pounds on the door 11 times and yells, “Sheriff’s office!”
Everyone pauses, but nobody comes to the door. The maintenance man opens the door and the deputies enter the apartment, where they find a 70-year-old man and his 13-year-old son.
“You have to develop somewhat of a jaded heart to kind of immune yourself. … It's even hard for me with my years of experience [because] I'm the father of two small children,” Mackowiac says. “You have to turn on your filter so you can cope with it. When you leave work, you turn off your filter so you can go home and be a kind loving spouse.”
After the eviction, Mackowiac gets back into his sedan while the 70-year-old man and his son walk side-by-side down Bowen Avenue, shrinking from view.
With that, the contact between the sheriff’s office and these tenants is over.
The 70-year-old man says he is heading to his sister’s house, but no one will be checking to make sure his son has a new bed to sleep in.
Dennis Wallace, 70, says he knew the eviction was coming.
He says his older sons were banned from the Bronzeville apartment by the building's manager. Residents being banned is not uncommon, he says. The ban is typically announced with black-and-white flyers taped up in public areas throughout the complex.
Despite the ban, Wallace says his son remained in the building with his girlfriend.
When apartment security cameras captured Wallace’s son violating the ban, the owner filed to have the family evicted a week before Christmas. Wallace says he acted as his own attorney and declared himself indigent with the hope of having most court fees waived.
On June 1, the judge denied Wallace’s last attempt to have the eviction order delayed.
So on June 30, Wallace chose not to answer the door when heard the knocking and call of “sheriff’s office!”
Wallace says he lived in the apartment for a decade. Now deputies are quickly moving through each room.
They search the small, darkened kitchen next to the front door. On the fridge is a white poster from a Bulls game. His son scrawled the names of Bulls players around the edge and wrote “Win Bulls!” and “DRose #1” in the center in green marker.
On the kitchen counter lays a flyer for an apartment resident-appreciation event.
Wallace says his 13-year-old son, his youngest of nine children, came to live with him about four years ago.
Wallace says the boy was raised by an aunt, the mother’s sister, until he was 10 years old because he didn’t have a job and couldn’t take care of him.
“I knew I could make it better for him, so I took him up under my arms,” Wallace says.
Wallace says his last steady job was driving a cab. He says he quit in 1994 after being held up nine times in eight years.
After that, Wallace says he bounced around from job to job. He says he spent a few months working at U.S. Cellular Field and later delivering newspapers for theChicago Sun-Times. He says he also worked as a cook at several places, but none of it was steady enough to support a family.
Wallace describes the morning he and his son were kicked out of their home as a “hectic experience, very hectic.” But it doesn’t show on their faces.
“I know he was feeling terrible about it,” Wallace says of his son. “He thinks his dad is going to make everything all right, so no, he hasn’t said anything about the eviction.”
Before leaving, a deputy asks Wallace if they have a place to stay. He tells them he has a sister within walking distance. They gave him a list of shelters just in case.
Then he leaves his home of 10 years for the last time. An officer rides the elevator down with him and his son, they walk through the lobby and out into a bright summer day.
When Wallace gets to his sister’s apartment she agrees to let them stay with her. Wallace expects it to be about a month.
For now, Wallace and his son are sharing one bedroom in his sister’s crowded two-story house.
“It’s not that easy,” Wallace says. “But we making it OK.”
Wallace says the management company contacted them a few days after the eviction and arranged a time to come pick up the rest of their belongings—a sign of the changes that have been made to the eviction process in the last decade.
They got most of their stuff, including the boy’s bike.
Dennis Wallace and his son walk down the street after being evicted from their Bronzeville apartment. They'll be living with Wallace's sister until they can get enough money together to move out. (Patrick Smith/WBEZ)
Patrick Smith is a WBEZ producer and reporter. Follow him@pksmid.