Case of ‘squatters' highlights difficulty in kicking out people who live in abandoned homes

Police arrested a group of seven this week

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. - People who move into abandoned homes and make it their own is known as squatting, and a recent case in Winter Haven shows how hard it can be for police to get rid of them.

This week, officers raided a home on Avenue L in Winter Haven and arrested four people living there for running a drug house. Three others were picked up on drug charges as well.

Police say one of them knew the previous owner, and when she died, the group moved in while the bank worked to regain ownership in court.

"There really is not a lot law enforcement can do, because there is really no true ownership at that point," said Jamie Brown with the Winter Haven Police Department.

That's exactly how some squatters get away with it, at least temporarily.

"When people are squatting, they are stealing. They know that," said Jamie Brown, spokesperson for the Winter Haven Police Department.  "They go in there and it's just a hotbed for criminal activity."

Squatting has been a serious issue in Florida since the housing crisis in 2008.

Police say observant and responsible neighbors are often the best ones to alert them to squatters moving into abandoned homes nearby.

In this case -- and in many -- it leads to something more.

"If I would have known, we would have never, never moved here," said one woman who lives nearby when learning about the drug house.  "We would have found a safer location to raise our kids."

On Wednesday afternoon, a city utility worker stopped by to turn off the water due to unpaid bills.

Earlier in the week, TECO came by to turn off the power the group managed to steal.

Now, in a way, the home on Avenue L that doesn't have a clear owner, is somewhat squatter-proof.

If someone tried to move in, code enforcement can kick them out because you can't live in a home without basic utilities.

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