CLEVELAND – 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 attention.
—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.