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In Miami, a causeway that crosses Biscayne Bay has become home to one of the county's least desirable populations, sex offenders. They live in tents and shacks under a bridge. It's the only option for sex offenders with few resources who want to stay in Miami.
As NPR's Greg Allen reports, what began a few years ago as a stopgap solution now has become a de facto public policy.
GREG ALLEN: Like other communities across the country, a few years ago, Miami-Dade County adopted an ordinance banning sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of anywhere that children gather. It's a law that applies not just to sex offenders on probation, but also to felons who've served their time, people like 31-year-old Juan Martin.
Mr. JUAN MARTIN (Convicted Sex Offender): The state is forcing you to live like an animal. You have to change your address to the Julia Tuttle Causeway Bridge.
ALLEN: What once was a collection of tents has, over the last three years, become a small village. There are now a half-dozen shacks, some with kitchens and working toilets. And nearly every week, probation officers drop off sex offenders recently released who have nowhere else to go.
Voncel Johnson recently became the first woman who was told she'd have to live under the bridge.
Ms. VONCEL JOHNSON (Convicted Sex Offender): Probation officer, she brought me here and she dropped me off. I'm thinking she's taking me to a three-quarter way house. But when I got here, it was like pitch dark. And the first thing I saw was a thousand men and I'm the only lady here, and I broke down. I'm asking her, why do I have to be here? And she said this is where I have to live at.
ALLEN: Johnson pleaded guilty to a charge that she exposed herself to a friend's children - an incident she now says never happened. Like Juan Martin says, the people who live here under the bridge aren't saints. He was found guilty of exposing himself to a teenage girl.
During the day, most of the 60-plus people who live here leave for jobs or to visit their families until evening, when their curfews require them to come back and live in what Martin calls inhumane conditions.
Mr. MARTIN: We've had two heart attacks here. The oldest individual here is 84 years old. He's got to be here for the rest of his life. And we have had a couple of times where people break down so bad they don't eat, they try suicide attempts.
ALLEN: Martin shows me his left arm. There are scars that he says are from his own suicide attempts.
The situation under the bridge on Miami's causeway is not something state prison officials and probation officers are happy about. They believe it's leading sex offenders to stop registering with the state and to go underground.
That's one reason why State Senator David Aronberg has been working to replace the hodgepodge of county and city ordinances with a new state law. It would set a single 1,500-foot restriction for sex offenders that would enable them to find housing in the community. Aronberg says the laws, as currently written, make little sense.
State Senator DAVID ARONBERG (Democrat, Florida): How is it that an army of angry, homeless sex offenders who are roaming our streets, how would that make us safer? It does the opposite.
ALLEN: So far, at least, officials in Miami-Dade County say they see no reason to change the ordinance.
Jose Pepe Diaz is one of the county commissioners who sponsored the law. He concedes that the growing encampment presents health and safety problems, but notes it's the state, not the county, that's put the sex offenders there, and that's a population for which he has little or no sympathy.
Mr. JOSE PEPE DIAZ (Commissioner, Miami-Dade County, Florida): I have to deal with people every day that I get calls from, dying(ph) and looking for jobs because they lost their house, they don't have a job. That's my most important priority. These people that have done these crimes that are living under the bridge, I mean, pull the record on some of them and see how much sympathy you're going to get from the citizens of Miami-Dade County or anywhere else.
ALLEN: The fact is, about half the counties in Florida now have an ordinance similar to that in Miami. There are fewer and fewer places sex offenders can legally live in the state after their release from prison.
In Miami, Fred Grimm has been a regular visitor to the camp on the Julia Tuttle Causeway. Grimm is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He is convinced county officials are waiting for outside forces, action by the legislature or a lawsuit, to resolve the problem.
Mr. FRED GRIMM (Columnist, Miami Herald): I mean, we've all seen homeless camps, spontaneous homeless camps, pop up, but this is a camp created by public policy.
ALLEN: And it's a camp that's getting crowded. The space under Julia Tuttle Causeway can't handle too many more people. Miami-Dade County officials may have to find a new location for sex offenders or take them north to Broward County. A highway bridge there recently became home to the region's second encampment of sex offenders.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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