Inside Miami’s Hidden Tent City For ‘Sex Offenders’

CREDIT: AP Photo/David Adame

In a Tuesday Feb. 5, 2008 photo, an elderly sex offender relaxes outside his tent at the makeshift camp he and other offenders call home under the Julia Tuttle Causeway in Miami.

In 2009, Miami-Dade County drew national criticism when reports emerged that more than 100 individuals on the sex offender registry were camping under the Julia Tuttle Causeway in the middle of the Biscayne Bay with the blessing of the corrections department, because a patchwork of restrictive laws made it so they had nowhere else to go. In response, officials cleared out the camp and changed the law, in a shift that was supposed to give these offenders a habitable place to live.

But four years after that new law was passed, those on the sex offender registry who consider Miami-Dade County home are just camping somewhere else — in makeshift encampments on the outskirts of the county near a railroad track. There is no sanitary water source, no bathrooms, and no shelter from the elements. Many of them used to sleep in an empty warehouse. But after the owners complained, they moved north to a small strip of land, where the only shelter they can find is from their own tents or cars, and sometimes another abandoned warehouse.

Officials and probation officers know they are sleeping there. In fact, they often direct sex offenders there who have no other place to go, according to a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

How does this happen? Like many places, Miami-Dade County has restrictions on where those on the sex offender registry can live, often known as “child safety zones.” In their case, they cannot live within 2,500 feet of a school. Miami-Dade’s law was passed two years ago after several even stricter laws that created buffer zones around a range of facilities were deemed too restrictive. But since the law was passed, more and more places have been classified as “schools.” And the significant radius — much greater than the 1,000-foot requirement in the state law — has left those on the sex offender registry with few options for affordable, habitable living space. For a time, these individuals were living at River Park mobile home. But residents lobbied to have a youth emergency homeless shelter defined as a “school” under the law, and dozens of those on the offender registry were ejected.

The ACLU of Florida filed a lawsuit Thursday morning to challenge this law, charging that it “arbitrarily renders off-limits broad swaths of habitable land” such that sex offenders have nowhere to live but in camps. They also allege that sex offenders have been ejected from their homes and relocated without notice, and without the opportunity to argue as to whether surrounding properties should indeed be classified as a “school.”

Those classified as sex offenders are perhaps the most ostracized class of residents. Laws across the country explicitly limit where they can live — as well as work or even walk, effectively evicting these individuals from counties and cities where they have community ties. In other cities, school bus stops have been dubbed “child safety zones,” and those on the sex offender registry have been banned from libraries, parks, and in Huachuca City, Ariz., all public places. In some places, “child safety zones” are so over-inclusive that cities only enforce them selectively to suit their interests, while offenders have little notice or understanding about what will be deemed a violation of the law.

Anthropology professor Roger N. Lancaster called the child safety zones “tantamount to practices of banishment” — a punishment that he deems disproportionately harsh for many of these people. In many places sex offender registries include not just the “worst of the worst” such as child rapists and violent repeat offenders but also “adults who supplied pornography to teenage minors; young schoolteachers who foolishly fell in love with one of their students; men who urinated in public, or were caught having sex in remote areas of public parks after dark.” In fact, in many instances, individuals pleaded guilty to an offense like urinating in public decades ago, not realizing the result would be their placement on a sex offender registry, and all of the ever-increasing restrictions that come with that list.

For the most part, residents have little sympathy for those subject to these restrictions, so it’s politically easy to make them ever-more expansive. But in the Miami case, there are likely few individuals — for or against child safety zones — who think having those on the sex offender registry relegated to outdoor encampments is good for public safety. In fact, academics who study sex offender laws point out they do little to make kids safer even when they’re not rendering that population homeless. Studies have found that offender registry laws have had no effect on the rates at which individuals commit another sex offense. And those former offenders who find steady employment and treatment are least likely to re-offend. There’s one more troubling statistic that limits the effectiveness of sex offender registry laws: Some 90 percent of abused minors are sexually assaulted by a relative or acquaintance — not a stranger.