One Strike and You're Out on the Street

If one family member gets in trouble, the Broward County Housing Authority evicts everyone. That policy forced Dorothy Springer out of her home.

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.

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Roger Williams