Some homeless squat in foreclosed houses
Massimo A. Allamandola
suburbanstudio at runbox.com
Sun Feb 17 23:32:05 GMT 2008
Some homeless squat in foreclosed houses
By THOMAS J. SHEERAN
The nation's foreclosure crisis has led to a painful irony for homeless
people: On any given night they are outnumbered in some cities by vacant
houses. Some street people are taking advantage of the opportunity by
Foreclosed homes often have an advantage over boarded-up and dilapidated
houses abandoned because of rundown conditions: Sometimes the heat,
lights and water are still working.
"That's what you call convenient," said James Bertan, 41, an ex-convict
and self-described "bando," or someone who lives in abandoned houses.
While no one keeps numbers of below-the-radar homeless finding shelter
in properties left vacant by foreclosure, homeless advocates agree the
locations -- even with utilities cut off -- would be inviting to some.
There are risks for squatters, including fires from using candles and
confrontations with drug dealers, prostitutes, copper thieves or police.
"Many homeless people see the foreclosure crisis as an opportunity to
find low-cost housing (FREE!) with some privacy," Brian Davis, director
of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, said in the summary of
the latest census of homeless sleeping outside in downtown Cleveland.
The census had dropped from 40 to 17 people. Davis, a board member of
the National Coalition for the Homeless, cited factors including the
availability of shelter in foreclosed homes, aggressive sidewalk and
street cleaning and the relocation of a homeless feeding site. He said
there are an average 4,000 homeless in Cleveland on any given night.
There are an estimated 15,000 single-family homes vacant due to
foreclosure in Cleveland and suburban Cuyahoga County.
In Texas, Larry James, president and chief executive officer of Central
Dallas Ministries, said he wasn't surprised that homeless might be
taking advantage of vacant homes in residential neighborhoods beyond the
reach of his downtown agency.
"There are some campgrounds and creek beds and such where people would
be tempted to walk across the street or climb out of the creek bed and
sneak into a vacant house," he said.
Bertan, who doesn't like shelters because of the rules, said he has been
homeless or in prison for drugs and other charges for the past nine
years. He has noticed the increased availability of boarded-up homes
amid the foreclosure crisis.
He said a "fresh building" -- recently foreclosed -- offered the best
prospects to squatters.
"You can be pretty comfortable for a little bit until it gets burned
out," he said as he made the rounds of the annual "stand down" where
homeless in Cleveland were offered medical checkups, haircuts, a hot
meal and self-help information.
Shelia Wilson, 50, who was homeless for years because of drug abuse
problems, also has lived in abandoned homes, and for the same reason as
Bertan: She kept getting thrown out of shelters for violating rules.
"Every place, I've been kicked out of because of drugs," she said.
Michael Stoops, acting executive director of the National Coalition for
the Homeless, hasn't seen evidence of increased homeless moving into
foreclosed homes but isn't surprised. He said anecdotal evidence --
candles burning in boarded-up homes, a squatter killed by a fire set to
keep warm -- shows the determination of the homeless to find shelter.
Davis said Cleveland's high foreclosure rate and the proximity of
downtown shelters to residential neighborhoods has given the city a lead
role in the homeless/foreclosure phenomenon.
Many cities roust homeless from vacant homes, which more typically will
be used by drug dealers or prostitutes than a homeless person looking
for a place to sleep, Stoops said.
Police across the country must deal with squatters and vandalism
involving vacant homes:
-- In suburban Shaker Heights, which has $1 million homes on wide
boulevards, poorer neighborhoods with foreclosed homes get extra police
-- East of San Francisco, a man was arrested in November on a code
violation while living without water service in a vacant home in
Manteca, Calif., which has been hit hard by the foreclosure crisis.
-- In Cape Coral, Fla., a man arrested in September in a foreclosed home
said he had been living there since helping a friend move out weeks earlier.
Bertan and Wilson agreed that squatting in a foreclosed home can be
dangerous because the locations can attract drug dealers, prostitutes
and, eventually, police.
William Reed, 64, a homeless man who walks with a cane, thumbed through
a shoulder bag holding a blue-bound Bible, notebooks with his pencil
drawings and a plastic-wrapped piece of bread as he sat on a retainer
wall in the cold outside St. John Cathedral in downtown Cleveland. He's
gone inside empty homes but thinks it's too risky to spend the night.
Even the inviting idea of countless foreclosed empty homes didn't
overcome the possible risk of entering a crack house.
"Their brains could be burned up," said Reed, who didn't want to detail
where he sleeps at night.
Sometimes it's hard to track where the homeless go.
In Philadelphia, the risk is too great to send case workers into vacant
homes to check for homeless needing help, said Ed Speedling, community
liaison with Project H.O.M.E. "We're very, very wary of going inside.
There's danger. I mean, if the floor caves in. There's potential danger:
Sometimes they are still owned by someone," Speedling said.
William Walker, 57, who was homeless for seven years and now counsels
drifters at a sprawling warehouse-turned-shelter overlooking Lake Erie,
has seen people living in foreclosed homes in his blue-collar
neighborhood in Cleveland. He estimated that three or four boarded-up
homes in his neighborhood have homeless living there from time to time.
Sometimes homeless men living in tents in a nearby woods disappear from
their makeshift homes, Walker said. "The guys who were there last year
are not there now. Are they in the (foreclosed) homes? I don't know.
They are just not in their places," Walker said.
On the Net:
NE Ohio Coalition for Homeless: http://www.neoch.org
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