If you really wanted to fix this, which we know you do not, you'd remove the residency laws that do not prevent crime or protect anybody, they only force people into homelessness and the problem you have had for many years now. Florida just continues to put out the burning fires and shuffles ex-offenders around and not solving anything.
By Terrence McCoy
Darkness has swallowed the train tracks. It won't be long until the men arrive. At 9:50 p.m., the first pair of headlights punches through the black, and a white Ford pickup rolls into the parking lot of a large warehouse sitting among the nameless structures dominating the Miami-Hialeah border.
Within minutes, more men approach on foot, on bicycle, and by car. With a downtrodden but urgent gait, they stride into the parking lot. They hate it here. They wish they could be anywhere else, in another country, or back in prison, perhaps even dead. But they have no choice. It's almost 10 p.m. This is Miami-Dade County. And these 57 men are sex offenders.
"I'm a businessman myself," says _____, a wiry 38-year-old erecting a cheap black tent atop a cement stairwell. In 2010, he was convicted of sexual activity with a minor; for the past three years, he has spent every night here, in torrential downpours, in frigid temperatures, with neither a bathroom nor running water. "And I need to sleep up here so I can get my rest. It's too loud everywhere else here."
In 2007, New Times documented (Video) how a Miami-Dade County law severely restricting where sex offenders could live led to dozens of them forced to sleep under the Julia Tuttle Causeway (Video). That story led to national outrage and local promises to fix a law meant to protect children from predators — but which many said created only more danger by placing offenders in the kind of desperate situations that led to new crimes.
Seven years later, it's clear the problem is as bad as ever. For the past five months, a growing community of sex offenders has swarmed these train tracks with tents, blankets, and lawn chairs. Because their probation imposes a curfew, the men must return here every night at 10 p.m. and stay until 6 a.m. or risk jail time.
"Not even dogs live like this," says one sharp-featured man who declined to offer his name. "We sleep on the ground, and you need this" — he hefts a flashlight — "when you go to s*** in the bushes so you don't step in someone else's."
Worse, Miami-Dade County Police Department emails obtained by New Times show the camp has become a worrying security concern. The number of transient sex offenders has soared from 20 the year after the law was passed to 324 last July, according to police. With more sex offenders forced by law into homelessness every day, tracking the men has become almost impossible. Many have disappeared.
"Efforts to conduct mandated address verification on these sexual predators... is now impossible," says one memo sent to the unit that deals with sexual predators. "Those under supervision have assigned curfew hours, and the probation officers can check in [on them]. Individuals [off parole] have no such restrictions. This is a huge problem for law enforcement."
The fetid conditions in this parking lot underscore the deeper problems with Miami-Dade's flawed law. In 2005, following the rape and murder of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford in Homosassa, Florida, by a repeat sexual predator, Miami Beach effectively banned offenders from its mile-wide island with a new law restricting them from living within 2,500 feet of parks and schools — more than twice the distance mandated by the state. Fearing an influx of sex offenders from the Beach to the mainland, Miami-Dade passed an identical countywide law later that year.
Probation officers soon faced a nightmarish question no one could answer: Where were all the sex offenders supposed to go? Men who generally would have gone to live with family members after getting out of jail were now barred from doing so.
Probation officers began taking offenders to a giant overpass in Coral Gables — just one block from Kristi House, a treatment center for victims of sexual assault. They were also within 1,000 feet of two day-care centers and within 2,500 feet of eight schools.
New Times' revelations about that situation sparked an angry outcry, but another encampment sprouted months later, much larger than the first. This time, it was under the Julia Tuttle Causeway. For at least eight months, a new sex offender arrived every week. Some offenders were arrested for minor violations of their parole and thrown back in jail. Others vanished.
The growth of the community incited widespread condemnation of the law. Critics pointed out that the vast majority of sex crimes are committed by friends and family members and that 87 percent of sex offenders have no prior record. Studies also show that living under extreme duress — like sleeping on train tracks or under a bridge — only exacerbates criminal tendencies.
Yet the county law has never faced any serious attempts at reform. Its facilitator, superlobbyist Ron Book, whose daughter is a victim of sexual abuse, still cheers the ordinance. "Have I changed my mind on whether this law is good and important? No," he says. "It's cheap, demagogic rhetoric that people throw at this issue to make excuses for why the sexual deviant can't find places to live. Well, people aren't entitled to live wherever they want."
But critics say the law is illogical and counterproductive. "There's got to be a more humane way of handling this," says Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez, who concedes there's no movement to change the rule. "That we restrict where they can live and not provide any facilities for them isn't humane or logical and is a totally incorrect way of handling this."
The backstory behind how the men have now ended up living on Hialeah train tracks only illustrates the absurdity of the restrictions.
By April 2010, the county had closed the Julia Tuttle encampment, while Book's organization, the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, used $1 million in public money to find six months of housing for the offenders. Those funds were intended to bridge the men into normalized society: employment, sustainable housing, a new life. Soon, however, the money ran out, and many offenders, still unable to find housing or jobs, were back on the streets.
Others discovered a mobile home community near the Miami River called River Park that seemed to be legal housing. Dozens settled in. But then, last summer, Book's Homeless Trust dispatched a note to Miami-Dade Police, telling them there was a school nearby. "The trailer park houses sex offenders," Elizabeth Regalado, an assistant director at the trust, wrote in an email. "It is infested with crime and criminal activity due to prostitution and drugs."
At first, according to emails, both police and probation officers thought the offenders at the park were grandfathered in. Plus, many believed evicting the sex offenders wouldn't make kids any safer. "The prostitution and drugs will continue at the park even if the sex offenders leave," one cop wrote. "And there has not been one incident with a sex offender targeting" the kids nearby.
More troubling, there didn't appear to be any place where the offenders could go. "Having to tell irate individuals that they must move once again because a particular site was now labeled a school will make the situation difficult," Lt. Dillian Robin lamented in another internal email.
But such concerns weren't enough to stop the eviction. On September 17, police notified dozens of sex offenders living there that they had to move. The men who were still under parole say they were taken to the train tracks at the intersection of NW 71st Street and NW 36th Court — one of few locations left that satisfies the draconian restrictions. Others simply disappeared. "Sexual predators understand how to work around the law," a police memo noted.
_____ witnessed the influx of predators to the train tracks. In 2007, he was picked up for cocaine possession and given a DNA swab. According to court documents, his DNA years later matched the saliva found on boxers owned by a 17-year-old who'd told police a man had performed fellatio on him at a Liberty City laundromat in 2006. Four years later, _____ was convicted of sexual activity with a minor and spent 16 months in jail.
When he got out, he says, his probation officer gave him "a few weeks" to find housing that was beyond 2,500 feet from a school, but he couldn't.
"That's when they told me about these train tracks and I had to live on the street," he says. That realization crushed his family. "I don't understand what happened," his mother, _____, wrote the court in October 2011. "Is this what the system is all about? Not helping anyone, by banning him from his family?"
Once at the train tracks, _____ met _____. The tall 27-year-old with gold-plated teeth had also just arrived after serving time for lascivious battery on a child. In 2005, _____, who was then 21, "implied he had a gun and would shoot" a 15-year-old girl if she didn't have sex with him, according to Miami-Dade Police. (_____ claims the teen was his girlfriend and the sex was consensual.)
_____ soon found himself wishing he was still incarcerated. "When I was in prison, I had somewhere to sleep, a roof, food. Out here, I don't have any of that. I have to pee in a cup at night. I don't have anywhere to sleep. People crap in the bushes. Most nights I wish I was still locked up."
In those early days, _____ and _____ say, there were only a dozen offenders living at the train tracks. But last September, droves suddenly arrived with nowhere else to go. They'd all come from River Park after the eviction.
Today the offenders have melted into a new, unhappy life. "They threw us out," explains one fast-talking man who declined to give his name. "Where in the hell was I going to find someplace to stay in one week knowing our status? We ended up running to any place we could find, and it was here."
"Don't we have the right to make ourselves better?" another asks. "How can we do that if every time we try, they close the door on us?"
Around midnight on a recent Tuesday, the men settle on the concrete of the parking lot to sleep and don't rustle again until 5:45 the next morning. In the darkness before dawn, a dozen offenders wearily yet hurriedly take down their tents. They say the manager of the nearby warehouse threatened to kick them off his property if they made a mess, and no one wants to endure another move.
A frazzle-haired man gargles some water, takes a swig of cafecito, and schleps his tent back into the bushes before climbing into the bed of a white pickup.
At the strike of 6, offenders take off on bike and foot while watching the white Ford pull away, taillights dissolving into the pale morning light.