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Squatters allowed to stay

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Updated: 5/08/2013 11:40 pm

PONTE VEDRA, Fla. -- Developers are clearing land in St. Johns County to make way for more new luxury homes at Nocatee.

Bryant Russell loves his new home.

"It's peaceful, quiet, new, and there are many amenities for our kids."

But right down his street, there's a mess along U.S. 1, where a homeless man has been camping for months.

"He's got bags and mounds of stuff all over the place. It's unsightly."

Despite dozens of complaints, the man was never forced to leave. The St. Johns County Sheriff's Office says its hands were tied, even though neighbors feared the man suffered from a serious physical medical condition.

"If we had some legal justification to make an arrest to or to move him we would have done that," says Sgt. Catherine Payne.

Payne says deputies spoke to the man many times in recent months, but without a complaint from the landowner, they couldn't force him to leave. St. Johns County has no law against camping except on its beaches, and because the man wasn't trespassing, he couldn't be arrested.

That's frustrating to new neighbors like Russell.

"We worked really hard and we saved and we built the house of our dreams and you have to see that coming in. It's sad. He needs help."

Payne says the man refused medical assistance multiple times, until Wednesday morning, when deputies convinced him to try a shelter in Duval County.

"The difference this time is that he became more willing to take the offer of help once he realized he'd be in a safe place."

But Payne says there's not much that can be done if the man chooses to return to St. Johns County in the future.

She says neighbors should be aware that the sheriff's office keeps records of anyone found camping in the area, to both guard against crime and to assist if there is a medical emergency.

The St. Johns County Homeless Coalition tells Action News there are 1,204 unsheltered homeless living in St. Johns County. That number is up 51 from 2011.

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