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Suburban squatters told to hunt for new home

Complaints lead a Hillsborough deputy to call on the 40 people who now reside on vacant private property.

By KATHRYN WEXLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 25, 2000


TAMPA -- The way Hillsborough County Sheriff's Deputy Steve Ferreira saw it, he was playing Good Cop on Monday.

photo
[Times photo: Fraser Hale]
Deputy Steve Ferreira of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office checks out a vagrants camp.
Beneath a tangle of branches, Ferreira faced a trio of mosquito-bitten men sitting glumly on a battered couch and wooden platform. As the rain glanced off a plastic tarp above their heads, Ferreira laid out his terms.

"You've seen the other side of us, and this is the nice side," he told them sternly. "Time to move on."

Just a few hundred feet from bustling Hillsborough Avenue, some 40 people live among the thick brush, invisible to passing motorists. They are squatters on vacant private property, Ferreira said, and they're breaking the law in any number of ways.

But the deputy wasn't out to make arrests Monday. He told the men, most with scabby arms and beer breath, they had a few days to gather their belongs and get out.

"It's always hanging over your head," Vietnam veteran Barry Holland said about the eviction. "And when they burst your balloon, it all comes down on you."

What stirred Ferreira, a community resource deputy, to initiate the roust was the frustration of Bruce Turner, senior pastor of West Gate Baptist Church at 5121 Kelly Road. Only a couple years ago, the church was happily doling out sandwiches to anyone who showed up hungry.

But over time, Turner noticed he was feeding the same mouths over and over. One day, he followed some of the men into the woods a few hundred feet from the church's fenced-in playground. To his amazement, he found a colony of jury-rigged tents, old mattresses and loads of empty beer cans.

"I said, ' Man, there's a whole city out there,' " recalled Turner. "You wouldn't think you'd see this right in the middle of Town 'N Country."

But the final straw, Turner said, came last year when a vagrant strode into the church's school for 600 students, on the same grounds.

"He became belligerent and reached down and touched one of the little kids -- didn't hurt him -- but said hello to him," Turner said. "That's when we got the (extra) locks."

Deputies in the area recently were issued several mountain bikes, and Ferreira figured that was the tool he needed to reach the more secluded camp sites.

But complicating things is the fact that squatters can't be evicted without the direct involvement of the property owners, who live out of state, Ferreira said.

Still, the squalid camps are a nuisance and violate code enforcement laws, he said.

So deputies charge the homeless with other offenses to make their stay as unpleasant as possible.

"We get them for violation of probation, for soliciting on a roadway or consuming an open container within 500 feet of a commercial establishment," Ferreira said.

Some men, like Kendall Taylor, 63, have lived on the property behind Bojangles restaurant for two years or longer. Taylor's temporary home, cobbled together with tar paper and plywood, holds a bed, table and battery-operated TV. He uses a big mirror, strung up in a tree, to shave.

"This is where you live, this is where you call home, but it's not your property," Ferreira said. "Take the weekend and find another place."

Taylor listened quietly. "Understandable," he said.

At last count, there were more than 3,600 homeless people in Hillsborough County, said Maria Rutkin, spokesperson for Metropolitan Ministries. But relief organizations have only enough beds for 17 percent of them, she said.

* * *

- Kathryn Wexler can be reached at (813) 226-3386 or wexler@sptimes.com.

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