BAY COUNTY, Fla. (WMBB) — Panhandle residents are still rebuilding their homes since Hurricane Michael last year, and the redevelopment process is expected to last several more years. But reports show homeowners are still getting hit.
With squatter cases on the rise, many of the thousands of locals left homeless since the storm are now resorting to illegal ways to take shelter.
“Before the hurricane, you know, people were in their homes. But since the storm, we have a lot of homes that are not able to be occupied. So, we have people that they just… They’re looking for a roof over their head or just a dry place to get out of the weather at times, and they just look for anything that they can get into,” said Springfield Police Chief Barry Roberts. “So, they start squatting.”
News 13 rode along with Springfield Police for an inside-look at a few vacant homes recently overtaken by squatters.
The electricity and water were both illegally turned on in one of the houses, which is a mystery to police and Gulf Power.
“We’ll be sending someone out here to figure out why and get it turned off,” Roberts said. “The bedrooms inside the house had padlocks on the doors. So, it was more than one person staying here. There’s stuff written on the walls about ‘I’ll kill you’. Nobody’s supposed to be in this home.”
Assistant Springfield Police Chief Russell Voyles says although the homeowner is not occupying the home, she is in the process of selling it. But having a squatter living in it has made it more challenging.
“You have folks that have gone in there that don’t live there and are causing damage to it,” Voyles said. “So all they’re doing is trying to make it more difficult for her to sell it and for someone to get in here and fix it up.”
Although squatters do have questionable property rights, Voyles explains authorities’ first step in removing a squatter from an abandoned building.
He says spray-painting a “No Trespassing” sign on the structure gives people warning before they enter the building and gives police their authority to legally remove anyone inside.
“It’s a nuisance to have people sleeping in these buildings, but it’s a bigger safety issue for them being in there. If the building collapses and they’re inside, we’re not necessarily going to expect for anyone to be in there,” he said.
Recently, Springfield police responded to a vacant apartment with the owner. Although she told officers the unit should be empty, an unfamiliar man was living inside, and the locks had been changed.
“When we spoke to the guy, he was actually a fugitive sex offender out of Jacksonville,” Roberts said. “So that’s the kind of folks that we’re attracting right now because the hurricane has left a lot of work to be done, and folks are flooding here to work. But they’re not all professional, so they’re looking for anywhere to stay.”
Another common way squatting incidents occur is when a homeowner grants a stranger access into their unoccupied home for housework or yard clean-up.
Laura Schoonover fell victim when she hired a man to remove storm debris left behind in her yard. The man, claiming to be a debris removal specialist, also claimed to be homeless at the time.
“So, he came here. And he needed a place to stay for a few days until he could find a new place. And he was already in the works of getting a new place with a roommate. And so, I wasn’t living here,” Schoonover said. “Well, three days turned into a week.”
She notified the Bay County Sheriff’s Office, and the man has since been removed from her property. She’s able to laugh about it now but admits she had to learn the hard way.
“Your home is your sanctuary. Just don’t open it up to anybody. Don’t open your door because, you know, it’s easy to open your door, but it’s hard to close your door once you open it,” she said. “I’m such a giving person. I think he just looked at that and said, ‘You know what, I can just stay here. And I can have an easy, comfortable living here. And if it takes you six months to kick me out, then at least I have six months of free housing.’”