GoogleNews/AP : Sex offenders welcome: Fla. apartments offer home.
Pahokee, Fla. — A cluster of one-story yellow buildings surrounding a small church caters to one of society's most despised demographics: sex offenders.
Since the development opened eight months ago, the minister who runs it has recruited former inmates by distributing brochures in Florida prisons and plugging it in sermons at the lockups. Some 35 sex offenders now live in the complex about three miles from Pahokee, a poor farming community of 6,000 wedged into sugar cane fields of the Everglades.
"Leaving prison or jail soon? ... Do you have special requirements concerning where you can and cannot live? You may have just found the answer to your prayers," reads the pamphlet advertising the privately operated, 24-acre village.
The village has become a haven for the ex-cons, who face tight restrictions on where they can live. Nationwide, hundreds of ordinances require sex offenders to dwell at least 1,000 feet from anywhere children gather — schools, churches, parks, bus stops. Elsewhere, narrow housing options have prompted clusters of offenders to live in tents and other makeshift structures, such as the 70 or so who live beneath the bridge that connects Miami and Miami Beach.
"Society sees us as lepers, like rejects," said Louis Aponte, who moved into Miracle Park three months ago from the nearby Glades Correctional Institution after serving almost nine years for attempted sexual battery on a young female family member. "I don't know where I'd be without it, probably living with my family, but that would be tough," he said.
The neighborhood is the brainchild of Richard Witherow, a minister has been preaching to inmates for about 30 years. Surrounded by nothing but sugar cane fields and country roads, Pahokee seemed the perfect fit for the venture — far enough removed from the voices of dissent, or so Witherow hoped.
Several attempts at establishing a place like Miracle Park elsewhere in Florida failed after local governments kicked him out. "People get hysterical when you mention sex offenders," Witherow said. He said Pahokee shouldn't fear his tenants, who pay about $500 a month in rent and work odd jobs around the site if they can't find work elsewhere. Witherow also offers church services and classes on relationships and anger management. "The ticking time bomb here does not exist," Witherow said.
Jill Levenson, a Lynn University professor in Boca Raton who studies sex offenders, said most of them don't commit new sex crimes. Still, she said it's rare to see a property owner welcoming sex offenders — much less advertising to them.
"There is a fairly small subgroup of sex offenders who seem to be most dangerous, most likely to re-offend, but the majority do not," Levenson said.
Studies on sex offender recidivism rates have produced varied results, from as little as 5 percent re-offending to more than 30 percent, depending on the severity of the original offenses. (Official U.S. Dept. of Justice Statistics say the rate is 5.3% - see post on Sex Offender Data)
Sgt. Mark Jolly, of the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office Sexual Predator Offender Tracking Unit, said authorities have had no reports of Miracle Park residents committing new crimes.
Last month, the Palm Beach County Office of Equal Opportunity determined Witherow, his Matthew 25 Ministries, and the complex's owner, Alston Management Inc., the company Witherow leases from, violated the county's fair housing ordinance by threatening to evict families with children.
A letter sent in December by Alston Management informed tenants in what was then Pelican Lake Village that it was becoming "adults only." Witherow started renting to offenders in January.
"If you have children living or staying in the apartment under the age of 18 years old, you will have to vacate the property," or be evicted, the letter stated.
The Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County and the Florida Equal Justice Center have sued Witherow and Alston on behalf of former residents, claiming they violated county and federal fair housing laws.
Legal aid attorney Shane Weaver said the housing of sex offenders is not the concern. Legally, Miracle Park can exist because it sits in an unincorporated part of Palm Beach County far enough away from where children gather, so it violates no laws.
However, Weaver said: "You can't just target people with children and say, 'Leave.'"
(Apparently, people such as these believe banishing a group of citizens is legal when applied to sex offenders - so why is it wrong to do to others?)