Some homeless squat in foreclosed houses

Massimo A. Allamandola suburbanstudio at
Sun Feb 17 23:32:05 GMT 2008

Some homeless squat in foreclosed houses



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 
becoming squatters.

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.


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