By Ben Wolford
PAHOKEE - Miracle Village is so remote, the residents compare themselves to lepers.
Two miles of sugar cane separate 100 men from nearby Pahokee, itself a flyspeck on the shores of Lake Okeechobee. They fill the skeleton shacks of an abandoned sugar-company town.
This is among the only places to live comfortably as a sex offender in South Florida. For many of these men, pushed to the fringe by residency restrictions, Miracle Village was the last net before homelessness.
"In the beginning, no one wanted us around," said Pat Powers, director of Matthew 25 Ministries, the Christian ministry that oversees about a dozen of the 65 dwellings on 24 acres. "But it's totally changed, now we're a part of the community."
Some of them had sex with their underage girlfriends. Some viewed child pornography. One resident, a leader in the ministry, was a teacher at a Palm Beach County school who confessed to molesting students.
Palm Beach County has established a task force to suggest ways to house and regulate the county's roughly 1,000 sex offenders. It has asked Powers, a sex offender himself, to share ideas at its meeting Friday.
Groups from as far as Texas and Alaska have sought Powers for advice. He said network film crews, drawn by the lurid possibility of a sex-offender colony, have descended on this outpost. Some, he said, left disappointed.
"We can't run it," he said they told him. "There's nothing controversial."
That was not true in 2009, when an aging evangelical pastor established Miracle Village, evicting families who lived there with children, and inviting more than 30 just-released sex offenders in the opening months.
It was halfway between two hostile places: prison and the public. It seemed perfect. But even two miles out Muck City Road, it seemed, was not far enough.
The Pahokee mayor at the time, Wayne Whitaker, told the Associated Press, "There's just too many in one place. It's very, very risky." Parents in the town complained of unease.
In Palm Beach and Broward counties, sex offenders are not allowed to reside near schools or parks, and many are further restricted by the terms of their probation.
"Municipalities and counties are in a race," said Dave Aronberg, Palm Beach County State Attorney. The race is "to push sex offenders into the neighboring communities."
"It becomes a competition."
But something changed in Pahokee. In three years, feelings shifted.
The controversial pastor died last year, and Powers, who had served 12 years on a lewd and lascivious conviction, assumed leadership. The sex offenders patronized local shops. Local officials made visits. Some of the tenants have built relationships with the local Methodist church.
"One of them plays the piano in the choir, one of them bakes the cakes," said Rose Herron, an 86-year-old churchgoer with white hair and a cross on her necklace.
The Rev. Patti Aupperlee, pastor of First United Methodist Church, said she takes certain precautions, including leaving the drapes of her office open, and said she has a close relationship with law enforcement. She said there was a recent incident, but declined to describe it.
She believes in forgiveness and human imperfection and second chances.
"When you see a pack of dogs, automatically you think 'attack' without knowing any of the individuals," Aupperlee said.
Pahokee Mayor J.P. Sasser said he knows several of the men personally through the church. He said they "are actually making a positive contribution to the community."
Powers said the recidivism rate among his tenants is nonexistent. This could not be confirmed; the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office did not respond to a request for crime rates among Miracle Village residents. In general, recidivism among sex offenders is between 5 percent and 10 percent over time, according to a recent Justice Department study.
Residents often talk about Miracle Village as though it was a person who saved their lives.
At 19, [name withheld] had a 14-year-old girlfriend. He served six months in a Brevard County jail then came here. Now 22, [name withheld] who plays the drums and Guitar Hero in his duplex, says Miracle Village is a place where his label — sex offender — does not interfere with his relationships.
"It was a blessing," he said.