During the height of the Great Recession American streets were littered with foreclosed homes. I used to work as a realtor doing contract work for banks. I spent a lot of my time in empty houses. Sometimes the houses weren’t empty.
Realtors often shared stories about squatters. It was fairly common for one of us to enter a house and find signs that someone had been living there illegally. Usually these were attention adverse vagrants who would flee at the first sign of being spotted, but not always.
In 2010, I was showing a house in a new subdivision in which development had begun with gusto but burnt out soon after. The area was half developed, a few cleared but vacant lots, a handful of built houses, and the rest of the land reclaimed by trees that had been there longer than the town. Of the handful of houses that had been sold in the development, one had been foreclosed upon. I was contracted for this house.
Upon entering the house I noticed that a back window was half open. When I walked up the stairs to the second floor I smelled human excrement and saw the common detritus that accompanied squatters wherever they stayed. Before I left the house, I closed and locked the back window and made a mental note to bring a garbage bag the next time I came, so I could throw out all the squatter’s things and the accumulated trash.
As I was leaving the development, I noticed one of the few people actually living on the block sitting on the front porch of his house and I stopped to speak with him. I explained who I was and what I was doing. I told the man about seeing the squatters' stuff, and the man said he had noticed someone walking in the neighborhood at night sometimes. He didn't think it was one of the three or four other people living in the development, but he couldn’t give a good description of the person. The man said the person wasn’t doing anything illegal, just walking around, so the man didn't bother calling the police. The man said that a lot of people were having a tough time and that he didn't see the point in heaping any more trouble on to those already sinking in it.
I asked the man to call the police if he saw the squatter again. The man acted like he didn't like the idea, and said he didn't see any point in hassling people who weren't causing any real trouble, but I insisted and finally the man said agreed.
I gave the man my card and asked that after he called the police that he call me, too. He said he would.
As I bean to walk away the man stopped me. He asked if I ever feared for my safety being a woman all alone in these empty houses. I said that sometimes I did. He said it made sense.
A few nights later, I was at home with my family and I received a call on my cellphone. I answered and it's the man that I had given her card to. He says that he's seen the person walking around and that he saw them head toward the back on the house I was selling.
I asked if he called the police and he said he had. I was halfway out the door before I remembered to grab a trash bag, thinking that if I was heading to the house again I might as well clean up the squatter's mess while I was there. So, off I go into the dead of night to check on the house.
I drove the half hour to the house, but when I arrived, I didn't see any cop cars. It had been around a half hour since the phone call. I thought that maybe the police had come and gone by then. So, headed into the house.
I entered the house and walked around. I saw the back window that I had closed and locked on my previous visit was broken now and open.
I sighed and was thinking about the hassle of replacing the window when I heard a noise from the front of the house. I turned and let out a small scream. Standing in the doorway was the man I had spoken with on my last visit. He smiled and I let out a relieved laugh.
I tell the man he was right about the squatter having come back. The man agreed and moved into the house.
I opened the garbage bag I had brought and began to pick up the various trash and personal items left by the squatter: empty food wrappers, a gallon of water, bedding material, and a cellphone. I threw it all in the trash.
Don't do that, the man said to my surprise. I looked up and he was standing closer. I looked at him quizzically. The man frowned and said the things weren't mine to throw away. I told him that this wasn't the squatters house and that the squatter shouldn't be made to feel welcome here, or I would never be able to sell the house. I asked the man, didn't he want me to sell the house? I told him that it would help his property values.
For some reason that set the man off and he began to rant at me about how it's wrong to take what little a person like the squatter has away. Can't I see that enough has already been taken from the person?
I began to get afraid, so I tell the man that I have to get home to super and would finish cleaning up later. I left the trash bag in the middle of the floor and I asked the man to leave so that I can lock up.
I was afraid for a moment that the man wasn’t going to leave. He stared at me and made no sign of moving. Then with one quick move he turned around and left the house.
I stood on the front porch with the man. I thanked him for calling the police and for calling me. He replied that he didn't call the police. I was confused and explained that someone called saying that they had called the police after seeing the squatter and that I assumed it was him. He said that he did call me, but that he never called the police. I was still confused, but the man was giving me the creeps, so I said goodbye and left.
As I drove away I watched my rear-view mirror. I watched the man as he watched me drive away. He was standing in the front yard of the home I was trying to sell as if it was his.
I watched as he turned and headed back behind the house I was trying to sell. I stopped my car in the middle of the road, there would be no traffic, and waited for the man to emerge from behind the house. I sat there for nearly an hour waiting. He never emerged.