By the numbers
Vacant homes, January to March 2012
Golden Gate: 144
North Naples: 124
Golden Gate Estates: 389
East Naples: 201
Source: Collier County Code Enforcement
NORTH NAPLES — Grass has crept up between the edges of interlocked pavers leading to a butterscotch house on Trail Boulevard in North Naples. The white trim on the gabled roof is splintering, fire ants scurry throughout the porch and interior, and a ball is floating in a pool that now functions only as a petri dish for muck and bugs.
A family lived there, once. The basketball hoop on the edge of the pool suggests it, and neighbors confirmed it.
But when Amber Holt showed up this spring to clean out the foreclosure home for a bank, she found a man who had set up camp inside — a squatter.
"He had a pallet and all his stuff in the front room," said Holt, who along with her business partner has been hired by a bank to clean up scores of foreclosed homes from Marco Island to north Collier, to Immokalee. The man ran out when she walked in.
Even with no electricity, abandoned homes can become temporary lodging for unapproved inhabitants. Sheriff's reports and anecdotes show squatters are staking a claim to abandoned homes in Collier — there were about 950 vacant properties in the first quarter of 2012, according to Collier County Code Enforcement.
A call came into the Collier Sheriff's Office on May 18 that two men were taking appliances out of the Trail Boulevard home — the same one Holt was hired to clean up. She and her partner had run into the suspected thieves as they hauled out a dishwasher. The men weren't the squatters, though.
Stephen Adams, 31, of Golden Gate, is charged with burglary, grand theft, and two drug counts. Adams told deputies the dishwasher was going to be scrapped for money, according to the arrest report.
While Collier deputies were at the scene of a reported burglary and theft, a man and a woman showed up and admitted they were squatters living in the home, according to an arrest report of the accused thief. Deputies found bedding near the kitchen and food in the pantry.
While Collier deputies were at the scene, a man and a woman showed up and admitted they were squatters living in the home, according to Adams' arrest report. Deputies found bedding near the kitchen and food in the pantry.
Neighbor Mary Whisman, who with her husband has lived in a home on an adjacent lot for nearly seven years, said she saw cars in the driveway of the home from time to time, but assumed it was people checking out the property. Squatters, though?
"I never saw a soul," she said.
The prior owners — a young couple with children, she recalled — redid the pool, overhauled the septic system, improved the lawn — then disappeared.
They bought the home in 2005 for $1,250,000 — it's now valued at about $513,000, according to the Collier County Property Appraiser. The bank now owns the home, the couple that lived there as squatters told deputies in late May.Collier court records show the home was foreclosed on in 2009.
Though the Sheriff's Office only has records of two other cases labeled as "squatters" since September 2011, Holt estimated about 20 percent to 30 percent of the 40 homes she cleans out and secures each month show signs of unapproved inhabitants.
There was the man with camouflage belongings and an "arsenal" of weapons, including several machetes. There was a family with children's faces pressed to the windows as Holt showed up, the matriarch telling her to get off the property. And there was the home where the electric bill had been paid up and there were cold beers in the refrigerator, with a nice stereo system nearby.
Holt and her business partner, Steve Carr, don't confront squatters intentionally. Some squatters have run out as Holt and Carr entered homes, unaware of inhabitants. Other times, upon seeing belongings or dwellers, they have called the police or the bank to deal with them. Fixing windows, changing locks, and cleaning out murky pools are all in their job description. Kicking out squatters isn't.
"Some are homeless. Some are families that have no place to go," Holt said.
Holt and Carr surmise that squatters aren't the ones clearing out appliances to sell for scrap, like the man arrested on Trail Boulevard.
Whether theft and squatting go hand in hand isn't clear, though that's indicated in a case in East Naples from late last year.
Deputies were called in December 2011 to a home on Weeks Avenue in East Naples. There was hamburger thawing and a few empty TV dinner boxes. But the owners were at their second home in Ohio.
Deputies were called in December 2011 to a home on Weeks Avenue in East Naples. There was hamburger thawing and a few empty TV dinner boxes. But the owners were at their second home in Ohio
Kirkland Wilson, an area Realtor who checks on the residence for the Ohio couple when they are out of town, had last visited in late November.
"I pretty much knew what it was when I came across it. There were a lot of indicators," Wilson said.
There was a small slit in the screen door to the lanai that allowed someone to unlock it. Then a sliding glass door to the dining room had been lifted off its tracks, according to a Sheriff's Office report.
A light was on in the spare bedroom, and the responding deputy surmised there was possibly someone "sleeping at the residence or at least squatting for some time." Cigarette butts on the bathroom floor were collected for evidence, but no suspect was named or caught. Bikes, tools, a video game console, and DVDs were reported missing from the home.
"If you can watch a place 48 hours, you can know whether you can stay in it," Wilson, a former Los Angeles police officer, said of unapproved occupants.
Photo by SCOTT MCINTYRE // Buy this photo
The Weeks Avenue case has made him a lot more wary, he added.
When he and his wife were looking for a home last year, they came across one or two that seemed to have unauthorized inhabitants — to the surprise of the real estate agent. Yet it wasn't until he discovered the Weeks Avenue squatter that he has become more diligent about visiting the homes he watches or is trying to sell.
"I check in a lot more frequently," Wilson said.
Lt. Rich Hampton with the Collier Sheriff's Office, oversees District 2, which includes parts of Golden Gate and Golden Gate Estates – areas that together account for a majority of the vacant homes in Collier County.
Deputies in his district come across squatters every week or two, and use discretion when handling the situation, which under Florida law is trespassing, he said.
"If you have someone that is just a transient, seeking shelter in inclement weather, we try to get services for them," Hampton said, referring to homeless shelters and other local service providers. A trespass warning may be given and the squatter's personal information noted.
"When we show up because someone has moved in, we have to treat that like a crime. Period," he added. Arrests can be made for burglary, theft, and trespassing if the situation warrants it, Hampton explained.
In at least one instance, a property owner in East Naples wanted a squatter on his property — though not inside the building — to get help, rather than be arrested, and deputies only issued the squatter a warning, Hampton recalled.
It was the right decision in that case, he believed.
"It's not like we get a big thrill seeing someone with no home going to jail," he said.