palmbeachpost.com : Nearly 80 sex offenders scratch out a life under Miami's Julia Tuttle Causeway.
Javier is one of almost 80 sex offenders living like castaways beneath the Julia Tuttle Causeway, which connects Miami to Miami Beach across Biscayne Bay. He says he was convicted 17 years ago of sexual contact with a girl, 13.
The offenders are exiled under the six-lane overpass because a 2005 Miami Dade ordinance prohibits people convicted of sex crimes involving minors from living within 2,500 feet of schools, playgrounds, or, in some cases, school bus stops.
Ostracized and squeezed out of all affordable housing in the crowded county, it has become impossible to find anywhere else to live legally.
Before 2005, state law applied, which dictates that offenders live at least 1,000 feet away from such sites.
But about 100 Florida cities - including some in Palm Beach County and all of its unincorporated area - have also expanded their buffer zones and state officials fear the "homeless sex offender" problem will spread.
"Terrorists, members of al Qaeda, live better at Guantanamo than we do," says Armando Martinez, 49, convicted in 1999 for attempted sexual battery against a child.
Despite the conditions, few people sympathize with Javier, Martinez and their neighbors. A sexual offender is often an outcast to everyone except, possibly, his own family members.
And Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, who is trying to help get them out from under the bridge, isn't asking the public for sympathy.
"People have to realize that making them live under that bridge has created a more dangerous situation," he says. "Because of the conditions, some of these individuals are absconding, evading supervision. These ordinances interfere with the Department of Corrections ability to keep track of them. This is a crisis situation."
Gretl Plessinger, Florida Department of Corrections spokesperson, agrees.
"Our concern is for public safety," she says. "If they are homeless there is more of a chance they will abscond. There are already 91 homeless offenders around the state, mostly in South Florida, and the problem is getting bigger."
The "residents" bathe in the bay and relieve themselves in compost toilets or in the underbrush.
The sleeping spots most protected from the elements are tucked about 20 feet up the concrete wall, under the bridge arches. Those spaces are just tall enough for tents. Long time residents have rights to those spots and live like cave dwellers.
On ground level, the inhabitants are crammed together in tents, plywood shacks, a camper. A noisy generator powers light bulbs, fans, microwaves, phone chargers, and the GPS receivers many offenders must carry everywhere so they can be tracked by probation officers. Cooking is done on grills. The crowded, gerry-rigged conditions resemble the Third World.
Almost all residents are men, although sometimes girlfriends sleep over.
One woman lives here, convicted of exposing herself to minors.
The expanding of buffer zones around Florida was provoked by a horrible event: the abduction, rape and murder of Jessica Lunsford, 9, by convicted sex predator John Couey in February 2005. Couey has been sentenced to death.
But most the bridge dwellers are not considered "predators," men who have committed violent sexual acts or acts with children under 12. Most are sex "offenders," and say they had sex with girls between 13 and 17.
Elliott Bloom, 31, says he was 19 when he had sex with a girl, 15. The offenders call those couplings between teenagers "Romeo and Juliet" cases and believe they are sometimes punished too harshly. Simon says the residency laws should distinguish between "offenders" and violent "predators," but they don't.
"Lot of things about these ordinances don't make sense," he says.
Dr. Jill Levenson, associate professor at Lynn University in Boca Raton, agrees.
Statistics show that the majority of reported sexual offenses against minors are committed by adults they know well, including relatives, and not strangers who stalk them, as in the Lunsford case.
"And according to the research there is no difference in the recidivism rate if sexual offenders live 1,000 feet away from schools and playgrounds or 2,500 feet," she said. "If the idea is that the kids be out of sight of the offender, 1000 feet is more than three football fields."
But Levenson says other elements of the restrictions make even less sense.
"From 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. these men can be anywhere they want to be," she says. "They could sit on a park bench across from a school if they wanted. But at night, when kids are home safe sleeping with their parents, these ordinances are ordering the offenders to be at a distance."
In 2008 State Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres, presented a bill in the legislature that would have made the state-wide buffer zone for living restrictions 1,500 feet, to go along with a 300-foot buffer zone during the day. It failed.
Simon says the ACLU is preparing litigation to try to force the state to alleviate the situation. Meanwhile, hurricane season has started. A severe storm will almost certainly destroy the camp.
"They say they are going to take us to a prison if one hits and then bring us back here," says Troy Dumas, 32. "This is crazy."
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