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Vagrants in South Florida this winter are increasingly moving aboard derelict boats sitting along the coast, in a new squatter “phenomenon” that only surfaced for the local sheriff’s office in the last year, Fox News Digital has learned. 

“This is a 2023 epiphany. We have had homeless, vagrant population here in Martin County for quite some time. Not a large one, but we have had people that are transient moving through. And we’ve had the derelict vessel issue. These were two separate problems,” Chief Deputy John Budensiek told Fox News Digital in a Zoom interview this week. 

“But as our marine deputy started citing, tagging and removing these vessels, they learned last year that a lot of these vessels were inhabited by vagrants,” he continued. 

Late last year, local media began reporting on the increases in vagrants moving into derelict boats and how the Martin County Sheriff’s Office was working to remove the boats and squatters, or bring some of the derelict boats up to code. Derelict boats are defined as vessels found in waterways with at least two violations, which can range from not having a motor to leaking fuel. Dumping derelict boats is a state crime that could lead to jail time or fines.


Martin County is located in South Florida on the state’s eastern coast, roughly 40 miles north of Palm Beach. Budensiek explained to Fox News Digital that the area is a hot spot for boaters, fisherman and tourists, with many sail boats traveling from the area to the Bahamas and back. 

“One of the byproducts of having a lot of vessels in our area, is some of these vessels tend to get rundown hard and become inoperable. And because they become an operable, some of these owners will abandon them or they’ll sell them to someone who doesn’t re-register the vessel. Those people in turn, stay on these boats or run these vessels until they are completely unusable. And they sink or they leak fuel, if they have the capacity to carry fuel, or they leak human waste and they become a real danger to us environmentally,” he said. 

“Unfortunately with South Florida, vagrants come from the northern communities where it’s cold this time of year down here.”

Though derelict boats have long been an issue in the area, the deputy chief said that in the last year, the number of derelict boats has only increased. He said that as 2023 drew to a close, the sheriff’s office tallied at least 50 boats that were abandoned in the last year, all of them consequently cited by authorities. Twenty-nine of the 50 boats were removed and destroyed, while the remainder were brought into compliance. 


a derelict boat getting towed

Budensiek clarified that the individuals squatting on the boats are overwhelmingly not homeless people who are working to find jobs and get off the streets. Instead, they are described by the deputy chief as vagrants, who are often people addicted to drugs, who suffer from mental illness and are not making attempts to get out of squalor. 

“The vagrant population as a whole seems to be transient. Unfortunately with South Florida, vagrants come from the northern communities where it’s cold this time of year down here. We get an influx of them and we do our best, but they have rights … to do certain things. So we want them to succeed, but we don’t want them to come and ruin the quality of life for people that are working hard and paying taxes and trying to keep, especially in this case, our waterways safe and clean,” he said. 

Differentiating a rundown boat that is in compliance from a derelict boat inhabited by squatters, however, is a difficult task, Budensiek explained.

aerial view of beach in Martin County, Fla

“It’s hard to differentiate. There’s a lot of vessels that are functional that people living on, that you and I may not stay on, but they are inhabitable,” he said. 


The sheriff’s office is on a mission to dispose of the derelict boats, or bring them up to code, and works in conjunction with the U.S. Coast Guard to test boats anchored outside the area’s water channels to see if they are up to code. 

John Budensiek, chief deputy, Martin County Sheriff's Office

“We’re going around and testing these boats that are anchored to just outside of our channels, and testing means going and making sure that their lighting functions, so you can see them at night if you’re trying to move through our waterways,” he said. 

One sure-fire tell if a boat is derelict, Budensiek said, is testing if a vessel is leaking sewage into the water. 


“Really what’s of concern us environmentally is most of them don’t have functional bathrooms. So what we find happening here in our county, we have these vagrants that are squatting on the boats, and using the facilities. And the facilities within the boat are just draining right into our estuaries, right into our ocean and our rivers here,” he said. 

“Environmentally, it’s a disgusting problem that we’re dealing with, and we are doing everything we can to identify who these people are, which vessels they are, cite them, remove them and get them off of our beaches, off of our shores,” he said. 

Authorities drop dye into suspected derelict boats’ toilets, to see if it leaks into the water, he explained.

“They’re also testing them with dye … They’re running this dye through the toilet system in the boats. And if the dye comes out in the water, then we know that that boat is not sound and is in fact leaking sewage into our estuary,” he said. 

Reports of people squatting in homes across the U.S. have increased since the pandemic, including in Florida, though Budensiek said that issue has not affected his community as it has others. Instead, the office is dealing with boat squatters as well as people moving to Martin County in RVs. 


“We have not, we’ve only had a few cases of that,” he said when asked if typical squatting issues on land have increased in recent months.”But what we have had here is individuals coming into our county with RVs. Again, it’s kind of the same thing we’re dealing with with these vessels, where they stay in the RV until the RV is not functional anymore. Then they leave it on the side of the road,” he said, adding that squatters taking over derelict boats is a “new phenomenon.”

Removing and destroying the derelict boats comes at a hefty price: anywhere between $7,000 and $40,000. The funds paying for the removals aren’t taken from the resident’s tax base, but from boater registration fees, Budensiek said. A portion of boater registration fees is set aside explicitly for the purpose of removing derelict boats “in order to make our waterways an appealing place for our residents and people that come here to enjoy our waterways,” he said. 

Sheriff's boat on patrol call

Budensiek said that his office is working with state agencies and the Coast Guard to identify and ensure derelict boats are removed or brought up to code, highlighting that local authorities are committed to making Martin County “a safer and more beautiful place to boat.”


“They use our local ordinances to combat the issue that we’re having. We don’t do it alone. We do it with our state resources, DEP, the Department of Environmental protection, they help us with some of these environmental issues. The Coast Guard is always available to come beside us. So we’re working locally, on the state level, and then on the federal level to combat this issue and make our community a safer and more beautiful place to boat,” he said.

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