By the time the cops arrived, the house was in total shambles.
Windows were smashed, beer cans were strewn across the lawn, light fixtures were pulled out of the ceiling, the drywall was kicked out exposing the studs in the walls, and on nearly every available surface, spray paint indicated what that section of the house was to be used for, from the "liquor wall" to the "sex room."
The Ft. Myers, Fla., party ended late last month with 17 people lined up in the driveway staring into the blinding lights of a police cruiser's headlamps. Seven of them, aged 18 to 20, were on their way to the station to be fingerprinted and charged with loitering, prowling and contributing to the delinquency of a minor; the other 10, all under 18, faced an even worse fate -- explaining everything to their parents.
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The recession gives people few reasons to celebrate, and families forced to foreclose on their homes and move out have little occasion to party. But for some young people across the country, the explosion of homes abandoned by their owners, like the one in Ft. Myers, is cause for celebration.
While a few kids hanging out may seem harmless enough, these foreclosure parties in vacant homes are often accompanied by drug and alcohol use, truancy, burglary, vandalism, and sometimes violence.
Police say breaking up a party, however, is not enough to stop the problem, which can encourage more troublesome criminal activities and diminish property values for an entire neighborhood.
The abandoned homes are often bank owned, but law enforcement often has a difficult time determining which bank actually owns the property. With no "victim" to press charges, offenders -- even those who steal from or vandalize the homes -- often get away without being prosecuted.
Banks sometimes will cover the cost of boarding up abandoned property they own, but generally do not. Cities and police departments generally cannot afford to board up a home, sending a message that these buildings are open for parties and other criminal activity.
"They were there for a beer party -- an open house party -- and to have a good time," Lee County Sheriff Office spokesman Sgt. Larry King said of the party held Feb. 23 in Ft. Myers. "But it went too far. The place was totally destroyed. We don't know if the vandalism took place that night or over several days, so some of the individuals might still be charged with vandalism."
Kids partying in vacant homes is not a new phenomenon, police in several states said, but areas with increasing numbers of foreclosures are seeing a rise in the number of problems at foreclosed homes, including parties thrown by minors, vagrants seeking shelter, thefts of appliances and copper pipe, and gangs and drug dealers using the vacant homes as bases.
Abandoned homes offer partying minors the same perks they do to criminals, said Alfred Blumenstein, a criminology professor at Carnegie Melon University.
"The availability of unoccupied housing is an important draw," he said. "It gives kids and criminals the same thing. It gets them off the street and away from where people can see what they are up to and gets them out of the weather."