DELRAY BEACH – A cloud of bugs flew out when police officers opened the door.
Inside the shed, an elderly man was chewing a piece of moldy bread as insects crawled across his cot. A stench of feces, urine and garbage overwhelmed the air.
This was the disturbing scene that greeted Delray Beach police officers earlier this month, when they were helping to clear out a notorious drug house in the Osceola Park neighborhood.
The house, at 602 Southeast 3rd Avenue, was for years a nuisance to the residents of the community. Squatters occupied the place – sometimes as much as a dozen at a time. There were fights, drug deals, and drug use on and around the property, said Delray Beach police officer Christopher Merk.
"We had heavy narcotics activity," Merk said. "A lot of suspicious incidents in the area. People lurking around in the night."
But behind the run-down home, officers were surprised to find an elderly man living, just barely, in a small, wooden shed. They pulled him out and now he's being "treated like a human" and cared for in a shelter, Merk said.
Merk, who is assigned to the Delray Beach Police Department's Problem Oriented Policing Unit, said the eviction was the result of police working with the community to find a permanent solution to the drug house beyond making arrests, which only resulted in the squatters being released only to end up back at the house.
In the unit's door-to-door rounds, residents continually told police about the place on the corner.
The community banded together. After the POP unit moved in, regular meetings were held between police and residents. Merk credited those residents with spearheading an effort to have the owner – a bank – evict the squatters.
The property is currently owned by Deutsche Bank National Trust Company, according to the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser's Web site. A Haitian couple formerly lived there.
After one resident wrote a letter to "putting the bank on notice," Merk said, that's when things really changed.
It's all part of the unit's mandate to take a "global" approach to solving crime and quality-of-life problems in target neighborhoods, said Delray Beach police spokeswoman Sgt. Nicole Guerriero. The unit blends community-style policing – walking neighborhoods, knocking doors – with traditional investigative work.
In Osceola Park, a working-class, predominantly Haitian area a few blocks south of East Atlantic Avenue, the house on Southeast 3rd Avenue was the "big story," Merk said.
But around the corner there was another source of trouble too. That house, at 610 Southeast 2nd Avenue, was formerly owned by a now-dissolved Haitian community organization. Inside, the walls had been stripped of all wiring and it looked "as if someone was trying to live in the attic area of the house and fell through the ceiling," the POP unit's 2012 annual report says.
Police also found "hundreds and hundreds" of files listing personal information of inside the house. The files contained the Social Security numbers, addresses, dates of birth and other personal data, police said.
Now, after police and residents worked with the property owners and city code enforcement officers, the squatters are gone and the two vacant houses stand empty and locked up. Police monitor them regularly.
Neighbors are happy with the new peace and quiet.
"It's quieter at night, there's less traffic on this corner," said Jesse Stein, 29, a neighboring homeowner. "It's a beautiful neighborhood, cute homes, lots of wonderful people. Having a couple bad houses really brought the neighborhood down a lot."
At the former drug house, a 'For Sale' sign hangs in a window at the house and new locks had been installed. Trash still litters the property, but not like it once was. A massive pile of garbage that sat in the alley behind the house has been cleared away.
At the house on Southeast 2nd Avenue, the doors are locked and boarded up. The only sign of life is a stray cat that peers into a hole in the foundation, no doubt eyeing a possible new hideout.
"We're really grateful for what's been done," Stein said.
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