NEW PORT RICHEY — Shea White walked into the squat leasing office of Walden Pond Mobile Home Park on Sunlight Lane. She didn't have a key, but she didn't need one. The door was left open, and inside, papers were strewn across the desk and floor. She yanked open a desk drawer and grabbed a stack of folders.
"Look here," she said. "Socials, licenses, titles."
Copies of Social Security cards, drivers' licenses and leases were shoved into folders inside the desk occupying a corner of the unlocked room.
Liz Nichols, a New Port Richey code enforcement officer, followed White inside. Her jaw dropped when she saw the personal documents, and she was soon on the phone with Paul Beraquit, managing partner of Walden Pond LLC, demanding he secure the room.
"It's open, and I'm in here, and there are personal papers," she said.
He promised to board up the building soon but refused to retrieve the documents that day.
Still, identity theft was the last thing on the minds of the residents in Walden Pond. A letter dated July 6, which many residents either received around July 10 or not at all, said the park was closing. They had until 11:59 p.m. Tuesday to move out.
Many refused, not out of defiance, but desperation.
Shea White and her husband, Brent White, have no car and no way to move. They worry their utilities will be shut off if they don't leave, but they have no other option.
A year ago, they paid $1,500 in deposits, moving costs and rent to move to Walden Pond, an aging mobile home park just west of U.S. 19, about a half-mile north of Main Street. Since they're now being told to leave, the Whites said, they won't get those deposits back. With no savings, a 6-month-old baby and three dogs, they have nowhere to go and no way to pay for it.
If their security deposit was returned, they could afford to leave, said Shea White, 32. After the damage Tropical Storm Debby inflicted on their cramped mobile home, they certainly have no desire to stay.
The park was flooded with several feet of water. Now the Whites' floors sag, the ceiling leaks and black mold is growing in their kitchen. Their infant son, Alexander, now has a cough that worries them.
"If the cops come and make us leave, we'll be homeless with a baby," said Brent White, 31.
The letter announcing the park closure was hand-delivered to them by a mail carrier, not law enforcement. It notified them that the park was being closed "due to decreased occupancy at the park and ongoing issues with certain utilities." It informed them that their verbal lease, which they renewed four months ago, was to be terminated.
This is despite the fact that they and many park residents have signed, printed leases with a section forbidding verbal agreements.
Nichols was at the mobile home park Tuesday, handing out pamphlets detailing Florida landlord and tenant law. She wanted the residents to know their rights before they began to panic.
She pointed out Section 83.67 of Florida Statutes, which states that shutting off utilities to force out tenants, even if the accounts are in the landlord's name, is illegal. Nichols didn't know if the residents had been threatened by the company with utility loss or if it was simply a rumor, but regardless, it couldn't happen legally, she said.
Nichols also said it is the sheriff who has the power to evict residents once a landlord has filed the necessary paperwork in court. She said Beraquit has yet to file anything with the court system.
She also spoke to officials at local utility companies and explained the situation, telling them not to turn off electricity or water. If that did happen, Nichols said, she would make sure it came back on right away.
Reached Tuesday afternoon by phone, Beraquit said he did not want to comment, but he did confirm he plans to close the park. He said he has been told nothing regarding the legality of shutting off utilities or evicting his tenants.
The tenants can only watch how the struggle between the city and company will unfold. Maurice Brown, 32, and Jackie Merryman, 25, haven't packed. They never received the letter explaining the park closure. They heard about it from their neighbors. Neither are employed, and they have no family with whom they can stay.
"Today is basically the waiting game," Brown said Tuesday. "And tension is mounting."
Mary Kenney can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6247.