Image: Lexington County Deputy Sheriff Jon Shokes
Willis Glassgow  /  AP
Lexington County Deputy Sheriff Jon Shokes says most evictions are routine. “Most people — I’d say probably 99 percent of them — understand why they’re losing the home and they don’t take that out on me.”
updated 4/9/2007 4:38:25 PM ET 2007-04-09T20:38:25

Deputy Jon Shokes knows a few things about you by the time he shows up on your doorstep.

He knows whether you or anyone who lived at your home has ever been to jail. He knows if police have ever been called to the house.

And, with his roll of industrial-strength tape and an eviction notice in hand, Shokes also knows that you haven’t made your mortgage payments.

“Like anything else I do in law enforcement, I want as much information as possible to keep myself safe,” Shokes said during one recent day spent posting some of the 150 eviction notices he’s served in the past 18 months. So far this year, he’s on pace to serve about 120 notices — about the same as last year.

As mortgage foreclosures increase around the country, it’s left to Shokes and other law enforcement agents to complete the final steps in the wrenching process of forcing a family from a home. It’s a lengthy trail that leads from notices of late payments to court hearings before being handed to someone like Shokes. When it goes smoothly, he often finds a family has moved out before he posts the final, 8½-by-11 eviction notice on a door.

The few times it’s gone badly, emotions run high.

“I guess the hardest part, and I don’t run across it a whole lot, is when they have children and the children don’t understand. They see the uniform, they see the car, so I kind of work a little bit harder,” said Shokes, a 20-year veteran.

So Shokes, the only deputy who serves foreclosure notices in Lexington County, does his research. He also makes three attempts to contact a homeowner before posting the eviction notice. He stops by at different times of the day and chats for a spell, mostly to make sure they understand what’s about to happen.

“I just don’t arbitrarily walk into this and say OK, I’m going to serve someone with some papers and tell them that ’Hey, you’ve got to be out of the house at this date and this time.’ I want to know who I’m dealing with,” he said. “Most people — I’d say probably 99 percent of them — understand why they’re losing the home and they don’t take that out on me.”

He’s been fortunate to have avoided “major problems,” he said, but “It’s still a very dangerous situation any time you’re taking something from someone.”

The notices effectively start a clock ticking toward a deadline for a family to vacate a home, which is usually the next time Shokes will arrive at their door.

Home to about 240,000 people in central South Carolina, Lexington County’s foreclosures typically have stemmed from divorces, job losses or illnesses that leave people unable to pay mortgages, according to the stories Shokes has heard from the people he has evicted.

But the fastest growing area of mortgage foreclosures are high-priced loans made to people with problem credit — also called subprime loans. Many of those mortgages came with low introductory rates and payments, but as the rates have risen, borrowers are finding it more difficult to make payments.

In the last three months of 2006, about one of every 14 of those adjustable rate mortgages in the state was in foreclosure, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. One consumer advocate group predicts that rate will increase to 17 percent for those loans made in South Carolina last year.

One day last month, Shokes made his rounds through Lexington County’s tree-lined, middle-class neighborhoods, stopping at mostly middle-class, ranch-style homes on quiet streets.

On his first visit before posting a notice, he knocks on a door and — if nobody’s home — he looks in windows to see if people are still living there and checks the meter to see if the electricity is still on. He can tell if power was cut off because the customer requested it or because they didn’t pay the bills.

At one stop, when no one came to the door, Shokes touched the hood of the car parked outside — still warm. “I think someone’s avoiding me on this one,” he said.

Every so often, Shokes arrives at a home to find the residents in denial. They haven’t prepared to leave, and eventually a bank sends a moving company to pack their things.

“I’ve had some that didn’t want to leave,” he said. “They don’t believe that someone is actually going to take all their personal belongings and put them out on the street.”

George Williams, a 54-year-old unemployed truck driver, had started renting a place to live by the time Shokes posted the eviction on his home in the Lexington County town of Cayce last month. He couldn’t make payments after his subprime mortgage rose from a 7 percent rate to nearly 10 percent. He refinanced, starting with an 8.9 percent rate, but that then shot up — and his monthly payment went from $700 to nearly $1,800.

The two men had talked before the notice went up, and Williams said later by phone that he had no hard feelings for the deputy who “was just doing his job.”

“I guess it would be worse if I had nowhere to go,” Williams said. “If my stuff got put out on the street, I would have felt differently.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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