One Strike and You're Out on the Street

On a warm July evening a year ago, Jeremy Rose made a mistake. The 17-year-old bought cocaine. He put it in his car. Painstakingly trying to navigate unnoticed, he drove too slowly. A Broward Sheriff's deputy spotted him creeping along under the limit and pulled him over. Jeremy's Rastafarian-style dreads jumped from his head like short fingers, and his lean, haunted appearance in a sleeveless white T-shirt isn't one that inspires respect from cops. The deputy ordered him out of his car. The car was searched. He found the drugs. Jeremy was arrested for possession.

None of that would have mattered except for several other things that sprang from his mistake. Those things changed the way his family lives.

Jeremy went home each night to a tidy, public housing neighborhood in Pompano Beach named Schooler-Humphries, with 44 apartments and 68 single-family homes all painted pink. The rentals are managed by the Broward County Housing Authority (BCHA).

The Broward Sheriff's Office submits daily reports to the BCHA, landlord of about 750 public housing units in the county. The reports detail all criminal activities of any public housing resident, young or old.

Jeremy has a little brother.

On November 5, 1999, 14-year-old Jermaine Springer made a mistake, too. His mistake would compound his older brother's. About 15 minutes after the last school bell of that autumn day, Jermaine spotted four friends. None wanted to go straight home.

Average in height and sweet-tempered in the presence of his mother Dorothy, Jermaine forgot about what she had said. He forgot about Dorothy's warnings -- that no member of the family could afford trouble without putting the whole family at risk, especially after Jeremy's mistake. Jermaine forgot about the special restrictions under which he and each member of his family lived. They were public housing tenants. Unlike other members of society, such families can be evicted from their homes if police accuse a single member or guest of a crime. The policy is called "one strike and you're out." Neither formal charges nor a trial is needed.

Unfortunately for his family, Jermaine and his buddies decided to make mischief, to wreak some havoc.

Between his Pompano Beach middle school and home lay another school with portable classrooms erected to accommodate a surplus of students. Jermaine had once attended that school, along with his friends. On a whim, the five boys decided to revisit their old school. They entered an empty portable and tore it up, ripping out an air conditioner and hurling various items around the room -- books, chairs, shelves. They probably took something, his mother believes.

A Broward Sheriff's deputy spotted Jermaine and stopped him a couple of blocks away after someone reported trouble at the school. Deputies also identified the others, connected them to the school break-in, and arrested the boys.

A few days later, Dorothy Springer answered a knock at her front door. A BSO deputy stood outside. He wasn't there to arrest her boys. Instead he handed her a white piece of paper.

Dorothy glanced at the paper and quickly noticed three things: at the top, the imposing headline, "Broward County Housing Authority." Below that she saw her name in small letters, and then a black-ink proclamation printed in capital letters. It was unequivocal. It read, "NOTICE OF TERMINATION" on one line and "SEVEN (7) DAY NOTICE" on the next.

The Springers had just been evicted. BCHA officials gave them a week to get out of public housing, where they had lived for 14 years. Dorothy Springer had never missed sending a rent check. The family of five was being evicted because two of her three boys, both teenagers and each in trouble for the first time in his life, had run afoul of the law.

Although the Springers had previously been handed an eviction notice after Jeremy's cocaine arrest, Dorothy had contacted a legal aid attorney. The lawyer was trying to negotiate a settlement for the family that would keep them in Broward County public housing. Jermaine's transgression would greatly damage her chances, Dorothy knew.

When she turned to show her husband the eviction notice, things went from bad to dreadful.

At age 50 Arthur Springer was on disability for several problems, including a weak heart and a stroke suffered a year earlier. A wiry man, shy and gentle in demeanor, he read the notice sitting on the couch. Then he began to fume about the system, criticizing the hardheartedness of officials before finally blaming himself. Dorothy recalls trying to calm him down. But her husband rose from the couch and began pacing, talking about how he should have been harder on the boys. How he should have resorted to corporal punishment more frequently.  

"How he should have done this and he should have done that," Dorothy Springer remembers. Then his face grew pinched. He began to gasp. Suddenly he collapsed.

She dialed 911 and began to pray. Arthur Springer had just suffered a heart attack.

As the tenant of record in her household, Dorothy Springer is an oddity among public housing residents who receive eviction notices from the BCHA -- most do not contest the orders, they simply move out. Officials evict tenants for a range of reasons: nonpayment of rent, destruction of property, and criminal activity are the most common. Thus evictions are usually paperwork stories that begin and end in neat files kept on the second floor of a purple building that serves as Broward County Housing Authority headquarters.

Outside, the two-story structure has the look of a fortress. The building faces Lauderhill's busy State Road 7, offering only a narrow entrance off the parking lot. Inside, double-paned windows appear to be designed for protection from assault. They face visitors across a cramped lobby where first-comers get a chair and others have to stand.

Most visitors stay quiet, patiently waiting their turn to discuss a complaint or a problem with officials. Occasionally someone loses patience, shouting helplessly into the small opening at the base of the double-paned glass. The outbursts always prove fruitless.

Others watch these performances with a mixture of hope, shared anger, ambivalence, or disgust, depending on their own problems. Posted on the wall are rules and regulations -- no one ever glances at these -- and the framed pictures of children invited to draw their dreams, then write a caption. One picture says, "My dreams is [sic] to be able to help the homeless, one day to make sure we all have shelter."

Beginning November 5, 1999, public housing shelter became an uncertain luxury for the Springers.

Furious at her youngest teenager, Jermaine, but hoping to avoid eviction, Dorothy telephoned her landlords in the purple building to tell them what happened. If she was honest and up-front, she reasoned, her goodwill might convince the bureaucrats to forgive her sons, giving the family one more chance.

Dorothy exercised her own style of discipline on Jermaine. "I beat his behind," she admits bluntly. "It still shines." As she did with his older brother Jeremy, Dorothy forced the boy to discuss how he wanted to live, what responsibilities he should assume. She grounded him, Dorothy recalls. Then she forgave him. "It's over and done now," she says. "I have to forgive him."

Meanwhile the law took its course: Jeremy received probation, Jermaine performed community service, and neither has been in trouble since the incidents last year. Both are so embarrassed now they will not discuss what they put their parents through, except for a single, terse comment from Jeremy: "I messed up, hurt my mom."

In the eyes of the BCHA and the BSO, however, the Springer parents had not yet paid their dues for either Jeremy's or Jermaine's transgression.

The day after Jermaine broke into the portable classroom, the Broward Sheriff's Office submitted a "daily report" to the BCHA describing activity throughout the six public housing complexes in the county. Last year the BCHA cited the daily sheriff's report in a successful application to win a federal drug-elimination grant. To the bureaucrats teamwork with cops means clean public housing complexes, a bragging point in winning federal money.

But legal aid lawyers say the daily report is illegal when it includes juvenile records, since those must remain confidential by law, except under special circumstances. After Jeremy's arrest last July, housing officials published his name, as they did the names of other juveniles accused of crimes. Challenged by lawyers, the officials began blacking out juvenile names but including addresses in subsequent public postings.

The sheriff's daily report containing names and addresses makes its way first to managers of the individual housing complexes and then to the purple headquarters, where the two most powerful people in public housing maintain offices.

Deputy director Joan Clay, a disciplined woman of meticulous work habits, according to those who know her, keeps records of every family in the county's public housing program. Her boss, executive director Kevin Cregan, oversees the BCHA's budget and consults on and backs Clay's decisions about individuals.

Clay, a 19-year veteran of the BCHA and the mother of five children, receives the BSO reports filed each day. The reports include any alleged criminal activity by an individual in a public housing family. Clay then makes handwritten entries in a log roughly the size of a Bible, as well as entering the data into computerized files. The log, bound in a green cover, contains a record of every person who received an eviction notice in recent years, penned with Clay's neat hand in blue ink.  

In 1999, for example, Clay made 73 eviction entries in her log. For that reason some residents call her "the Enforcer."

As soon as Clay learned of Jermaine's arrest, she took action. Clay says there are no exceptions, no special treatment. She started the paperwork to evict the family and entered the Springer name in her green log.

Dorothy Springer took action, too. Following her honesty-is-the-best-policy principles, she reached Kevin Cregan on the telephone to explain what happened and to plead for forgiveness for her son. He told her he'd see what he could do and get back to her. Springer says Cregan never got back to her, but Clay did. On the telephone Clay gave her no encouragement. Clay was polite, even sympathetic about the Springers' trouble, says Dorothy, but she gently insisted that rules were rules.

Then Clay issued the eviction notice.

One of a family of 20 children born in the Bahamas, Dorothy Springer thinks of herself as both a good mother and a fighter. She says she has a good man in her corner -- Arthur, her second husband -- and good sons. But the family is poor.

So against the odds, Dorothy took herself south from Pompano Beach, across the New River in downtown Fort Lauderdale, and into the secluded, semi-industrial neighborhood where Broward County's legal aid lawyers and staff work to help poor people.

Dorothy entered the warren of low offices along narrow passageways that lead to the crowded office of Jane Duff. Lawyer Duff is paid by taxpayers to help public housing tenants with legal problems. A 50-year-old married woman with two cats, Duff works in T-shirts and literally lets her hair down. She figures she earns about $21 an hour to defend evictees from evictors.

In public housing cases based on one-strike rules, she says, the plaintiff -- the landlord doing the evicting -- could be any one of six housing authorities located in Broward County. Five are operated under the aegis of cities, and the sixth is the BCHA. But generally Duff's eviction cases come only from the BCHA's 750-unit world. Rarely does Duff find herself defending tenants evicted from any of the roughly 1400 total public housing units managed by the five other agencies. She calls the BCHA's no-questions-asked evictions "probably unconstitutional, certainly unnecessary."

Earlier in life Duff was a teacher. Then she switched tracks and enrolled at Nova Southeastern University Law School, later putting up a shingle and shaping her own private practice. Sporting a wry smile, Duff is fond of saying she used to make a lot of money. But one day a colleague in corporate law -- an ambitious woman about Duff's age who worked all the time and kept herself fit -- died of cancer.

The experience sobered Duff and led her to legal aid. "I figured life was too short, and I wanted to do something for somebody again, so I came here." For Duff, however, doing something for the Springers seemed difficult, if not impossible.

Dorothy appeared at Duff's door in late November. In her accented English she described what Jermaine had done. She showed Duff the eviction notice. Duff was worried, but she told Springer she would begin making calls and devising a strategy.

One of the biggest problems confronting Duff: Springer signed a lease addendum in May 1999 that does more than stipulate rent based on income. Called the one-strike addendum, it says that if any member of the tenant's household or any guest commits a drug-related or other crime on or off public housing premises, the tenant's family can be evicted.

The BCHA requires every tenant to sign the addendum. "It ties our hands," Duff explains. The idea of the 1996 Clinton administration's one-strike policy was to rid public housing of drug-related crimes and criminals who threaten the safety and peace of public housing residents. Although the Springers did not appear to threaten anybody, they were about to get hit with the policy.

The strategy Duff proposed to avoid such an outcome, aimed at keeping the Springers in their $294-a-month house, arrived by mail. Dorothy Springer says she was horrified at its message, although she doesn't blame Duff.

In a letter dated December 10, Duff wrote that Springer would have to move her son Jermaine out of her home, breaking up the family, if Duff were to have even a fighting chance of stopping the eviction. In a December 20 letter, Duff added a second stricture to the legal strategy: She advised Springer to pay within two days the back rent accrued since Jeremy's cocaine bust. (Public housing authorities do not accept rent while trying to evict tenants.)  

Only then might Duff go toe-to-toe with the BCHA's private lawyers and try to wrangle a settlement for the Springers.

Dorothy was distraught. She knew the family couldn't afford market-rate rents. Neither she nor Arthur worked. His disability stemmed from his heart problems and stroke, and she, too, suffers from health problems, including a birth defect that leaves her with only four fingers on one hand and a history of operations for chest tumors, which she says keep coming back. The family's monthly BCHA rent was based on social security and disability payments. There was no other income.

On the positive side, Dorothy had carefully saved the back rent -- in fact, she'd tried twice to pay it, she says, and been refused. If she chose to follow Duff's advice, she knew she could hand her landlords a check for almost $1500 the next day.

Dorothy expresses guilt and regret for considering the option, but she admits feeling a temptation to break up the family. She weighed the choices and the chances, wondering where Jermaine could go, wondering how he would feel and how she would feel, whether or not Duff succeeded. Then Dorothy made up her mind.

The months spent hoping for a legal aid miracle were over.

"There was no way I was going to send my boy away just to stay in public housing." She then asks, "How would you feel if somebody told you to send away your child?" So she turned down Duff's offers and advice and shut the door on legal aid.

Both Duff and her boss, legal aid's litigation director Sharon Bourassa, say they are infuriated -- not because they couldn't help under the circumstances, but because the BCHA has money mandated to help boys such as Jeremy and Jermaine with counseling and doesn't. "They should have been helping; they could have been helping," Bourassa says. "One-strike is a last resort, not a first resort."

Last year, records show, the BCHA received more than $170,000 in federal grants to stop drug and crime problems in public housing, $69,000 of that in drug-elimination grants.

Drug elimination, says Bourassa, is defined in federal guidelines as professional counseling or training aimed at educating people who get into trouble. The money is not intended to provide mere law enforcement. "They haven't done elimination, they aren't using the money that way," Bourassa frets about the BCHA. "Nowhere did they help the Springer family or any others. Did they get the kid into a program for 30 days? No. Did they provide professional counseling? No. So they're misusing money."

Bourassa says the bureaucrats' misuse hurts the public. Her thinking goes like this: The children of families thoughtlessly shoved out the public-housing door are likely to suffer increased squalor. And they're more likely to fall into trouble and cost society in the future.

The litigation director claims that the BCHA's misuse of drug-elimination money amounts to theft from the government. She says she intends to file a federal lawsuit against the BCHA. Bourassa also believes that BCHA officials pushed up the number of evictions in past years so they could use the statistics to win increases in federal grant money.

As for the one-strike policy itself, the tool that provides the legal basis for the Springers' eviction, its intention is admirable, but its practice is unconstitutional, the legal aid lawyers argue. "The policy is good in theory -- I mean nobody is in favor of drugs and crime in public housing," Duff says. "But I also think it's unconstitutional when it's enforced so strictly that a number of people are regularly punished for the sins of one. Is that just?"

She makes the point by reading from the federal law that governs public housing evictions based on criminal behavior, Code Federal Regulation 24-966: "The public housing authority shall have discretion to consider all circumstances of the case… including the effect [eviction] would have on family members not involved."

Elsewhere in the U.S., the one-strike policy has been challenged as unconstitutional with varying degrees of success; the legal consensus, however, is that when tenants sign a one-strike lease addendum to their rent agreement, judges and juries are usually bound to uphold the policy.

Kevin Cregan and Joan Clay insist they are not hardhearted for carrying out a federal mandate. One-strike "is a useful tool" in protecting law-abiding tenants, says Cregan. It ends problems, it doesn't create them. And anyone who accuses the BCHA of "theft," he suggests, is just plain silly -- the BCHA's federal money builds computer labs for children, it funds sports activities and, yes, it also helps beef up law enforcement.  

Although Cregan denies a direct connection between higher rates of eviction and more federal grant money, he admits that " HUD certainly didn't punish us by withholding money" when the BCHA aggressively evicted the families of lawbreakers, then reported the evictions in grant applications.

Cregan and Clay have worked together for a long time, at least since Cregan's arrival at the BCHA more than ten years ago, when crime was rampant in public housing. As executive director and deputy director respectively -- the two highest positions in the housing authority -- neither will discuss individual cases.

A tall, white-haired man, Cregan frequently works in a long-sleeved polo shirt with no tie, open at the neck. His large office includes pictures of his three sons in tuxedos, photos of little league baseball teams, and a wall of awards and plaques celebrating his public housing achievements.

He refuses to give a New Times photographer the address of a family being evicted from public housing because he doesn't want to embarrass them.

"We worry about the kids," Cregan says.

Clay echoes her boss' concern, at least initially. "I start to feel bad sometimes," she says, "but when I look across [a hearing room or a court room] and see the mothers, I think, I didn't do this, they did this. I think, We give them enough up-front counseling. This is the rule, you've got to follow it." By "counseling" Clay means warning -- tenants are warned when they sign the one-strike lease addendum that BCHA officials are serious about enforcing it. The subject is broached at community meetings advertised for any who choose to attend.

Can parents keep their kids out of trouble all the time? Is it fair to expect that, especially in large families? "Absolutely they can keep them out of trouble. That's their responsibility," she argues. "They are told this at leasings, in notices, and in tenant meetings."

As for curing or counseling people with drug problems or those who commit crimes, insists Cregan, "that's not our job, we can't do that. We're housing managers." His job, as he sees it, is to provide safe homes for residents of public housing, where the average stay is now about four years and where at least 65 percent of tenants work.

One-strike helps Clay and Cregan do the job by getting rid of those who, in the official language of one-strike, "interfere with the health, safety, or right to peaceful enjoyment of the premises."

Allegations, not just convictions, can lead to evictions. "A criminal conviction is not necessary to terminate a lease in any Federal household that there is proof of possession of illegal drugs on or off public housing premises," the one-strike policy reads.

The Broward Sheriff's Office puts muscle in the one-strike policy by constantly patrolling neighborhoods and quickly reporting allegations to the BCHA.

Cregan claims the deputies are restrained. "They aren't always eager to arrest people," he says, "but they're a great bunch, they give us tremendous support." He has returned that support by offering undercover deputies vacant apartments from which to spy on drug activity and rent-free space to establish substations.

Families such as the Springers, Cregan admits, were not the original targets of tough federal policies aimed at cleaning up public housing. Faced with horror stories of rampant crime and drug sales in public housing neighborhoods, in 1991 the government began providing large grants to pay for aggressive law enforcement. In Schooler-Humphries it worked like a charm. Once the BCHA's toughest public housing neighborhood, it was cleaned up before the 1996 one-strike policies appeared.

"In one year [1992-93] we had 164 recorded narcotics violations there, and in 12 months it was slashed to almost nothing," Cregan recalls. "It was incredible."

But one-strike appealed to Cregan and Clay anyway, because it gave them much greater reach. Under previous policies a family could be threatened with eviction only if one of its members committed a crime within 1000 feet of the neighborhood. Not anymore. Now tenants can be evicted regardless of the location of a crime. Under the original policy, Dorothy Springer never would have seen an eviction notice.

Inevitably most evictions resound in the lives of children. Families move into more expensive, cramped quarters in neighborhoods that are often rougher than public housing neighborhoods.

For the family of Deprodical and Betty Hanes, the one-strike reality meant not only eviction but a family breakup. Friends and neighbors of Dorothy Springer, the Haneses also had lived in Schooler-Humphries, a family of nine tucked into a four-bedroom home on Northeast 38th Court in Pompano Beach.

The family includes six daughters and a son. Like Jermaine Springer, the Hanes boy broke the law. When Betty Hanes returned from her day job as a maid in a high-rise hotel on the beach one day, she found her husband waiting with an eviction note from the BCHA.  

The note was a model of one-strike teamwork between the housing authority and the BSO. "The Broward County Housing Authority has received information from the BSO (case no. BS99-11-02762) that a juvenile living at your address… was arrested on Nov. 5 1999 and charged with burglary structure, criminal mischief (over 1,000) and petit theft."

The juvenile in question was one of Jermaine Springer's friends. The note was similar to the one the Springer family received the day Arthur had a heart attack.

The boys had vandalized the schoolroom together, their mothers later figured out. Then the BCHA evicted the families together. The Springers moved out of public housing a few weeks after the Haneses' departure.

Although Betty and Deprodical Hanes, like Dorothy Springer, sought help from legal aid, they decided lawyers could not get them out of the jam.

The Hanes family moved into a private, two-bedroom apartment where their rent increased from about $350 a month to $700 a month. Frustrated and angry, they feared the new quarters were too cramped, so they made arrangements to move three of their girls.

The daughters went to live with Betty Hanes' sister.

Cregan and Clay express sorrow for the misfortunes of those children, but they say the rules were clear to the parents. Last year 8 of the 73 eviction notices delivered to residents and signed by Clay were based on the one-strike policy -- those included the notices to the Springer family and the Hanes family. The year before that Clay signed 18 one-strike eviction notices out of 64. So far this year, she has signed 7 eviction notices to remove families of alleged lawbreakers.

Whether or not the BCHA's one-strike stand is charitable or even constitutional, it guarantees inactivity. In the Schooler-Humphries neighborhood where the Springer and Hanes families once lived, their old street appears as quiet as a retirement community and almost as motionless as a still life.

Few children can be seen biking or walking on a June afternoon, and most adults work, so cars come and go infrequently.

Residents and landlord share little interest in green grass -- most lawns are brown and sandy. But yards are neat. People do not pile junk near their houses. The street, with its single-minded devotion to pink boxes, looks strangely austere.

Part of the reason for quiet, of course, is the disappearance of nine children who once populated the neighborhood, the Hanes and Springer kids.

Good children, not troublemakers, according to Laverne Mayo, a tenant-leader and long-time resident of public housing, who remembers Springer's family with particular affection.

The day they moved out, piling boxes into the trunks of friends' cars and tying mattresses and old furniture onto the roofs, Mayo says she was crying. What happened to both families saddens her because they were decent; the children threatened no one in the community.

From her front window, Mayo has watched the street for years. She agrees that BCHA directors Cregan and Clay have done a good job cleaning up a once-tough neighborhood. "Oh it's a whole sight better, much better; it's nice now," Mayo says -- but not because of the one-strike policy of her landlords. Housing Authority officials got rid of the most troublesome tenants years before they went after people such as the Springers. And tenants take care of their own streets too, she says, ensuring criminals stay away. They also care for each other.

Case in point: When the BSO deputy handed Dorothy Springer an eviction notice and Arthur collapsed, Mayo was right there to help.

"She was in the hospital with me, all the way," recalls Springer, speaking of her friend. "She drove me there."

The day almost ended in tragedy -- North Broward Medical Center doctors saved Arthur Springer's life when he arrived in the back of an ambulance. Mayo stayed with Dorothy Springer throughout the day and the evening, helping with the children as she always had.

"She used to watch my children; we all did, we all took care of each other, and it was hard to get in trouble on that street," Springer recalls. "She's like a sister to me, and like a mother to my kids."

As for the Springer family, Mayo says they were among the best influences on the block, a two-parent home without ostensible problems. Mayo remains philosophical about boys such as Jeremy and Jermaine. "Those kids are no trouble -- every child be wild sometime, but they're no trouble." And she wishes, for their sake as well as hers, they had not been booted unceremoniously from the neighborhood. "It won't help them," she insists, "and it don't make this street no better."  

Both Mayo and Dorothy Springer tell the same story about Springer's eviction. But Dorothy is telling it from a $700-a-month house in Deerfield Beach that she knows the family can't afford.

To get into the house, she had to make a down payment of $1500, which included almost $500 from a social services agency. The other $1000, Dorothy says, came from unpaid rent the housing authority would not accept when she initially began to contest her eviction.

Last week life was looking tougher than it had for years to Dorothy Springer, and she was asking friends to help her find a less expensive home for her family.

"This is too much [rent] here," she says, glancing around the rooms she spent a month scrubbing and cleaning when she arrived in her new abode. The small structure appears ramshackle and poorly cared for by the landlord, who clearly doesn't maintain his property as well as the BCHA keeps its homes.

The walls, the ancient carpet, and the corners and cracks all look spotless, about as clean and clear as her signature on the piece of paper that confirmed her agreement to abide by the one-strike policy.

Jeremy, now 18 years old and clean-cut, comes in and nods to his mother. Jermaine has gone to visit a friend, and Arthur -- Arthur tried hard to take care of himself after the heart attack. But her husband also worried constantly about locating less expensive quarters. The family's lack of a car hampered his search, and his anxiety and poor health put him back in the hospital twice. Last week Arthur was home again but unable to help Dorothy.

On the wall behind Dorothy is a framed photograph of her still-living mother -- a woman stalwart enough to bear 20 children -- smiling bravely outward at the world.

Dorothy, now 45 years old, glances at her mother and smiles too, in spite of the problems, though they keep coming.

The BCHA has sent her a bill for $1488, demanding unpaid rent money even though housing officials wouldn't accept it when she was still living in public housing and fighting eviction.

If she doesn't pay it, Springer fears, the BCHA will ruin her credit.

She glances out a window, frowning. "In one day," she notes incredulously, "I lost my home, and my husband almost died."

Then she received the BCHA bill.

She pinches it by the corner and holds it away from her, like a woman bearing a dirty rag. "Everybody has trouble with their kids sometime or other, but we didn't deserve this."

Contact Roger Williams at his e-mail address:

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