For the past four years, dozens of homeless sex offenders have lived in tents in a makeshift encampment along a set of railroad tracks in Hialeah, a city in Florida’s Miami-Dade County.
The residents live in squalid conditions, as documented by the Miami New Times in an investigation last year. Rain soaks through the tents, and flies and mosquito populate the residents’ belongings. Because there isn’t even an outhouse in the area, many of those living there are forced to defecate outside.
Many of the surrounding businesses have complained that they’ve lost customer traffic as a result of the encampment and view the residents as a nuisance. Because it is widely known that sex offenders live there, passersby sometime pelt those living there with eggs and bottles, the Miami New Times reported.
After the story, which followed years of mounting public complaints, Miami-Dade’s county commissioners amended an ordinance on public camping to effectively outlaw the encampment this past January, citing public safety and health concerns. In March, Mayor Carlos Giménez gave those living there 45 days to vacate. That deadline is Sunday; if they refuse to leave by then, police may be able to arrest them on the spot.
The problem is, they have almost nowhere to go.
Civil liberties advocates in south Florida are raising the alarm about what the changes mean for the scores of people impacted by the changed ordinance.
There are severe restrictions on where in the county sex offenders can live, said Gail Colletta, president of the Florida Action Committee, which works to reform sex offender laws.
“Homeless shelters are not allowed to house sex offenders because there may be children in there,” she said, noting that the approaching hurricane season makes the situation even more difficult. “Many of them are left out in the elements because they can’t get to a safe place, or there’s no safe place to be because of ordinances. The inhumanity is beyond the pale. These are people who’ve already paid their debt to society, they’ve been incarcerated, they’ve done their time, they’re trying to successfully complete probation, but at every single turn, we create situations to set them up to fail. And this is a perfect example of another one.”
Many of the camp residents have ties to Miami-Dade County, which makes it difficult for them to pick up and leave to counties with less restrictive laws.
“Most people have families here. They grew up here. They’re going to counseling as a condition of probation. This is where their work is, this is where their families are,” said Valerie Jonas, an attorney working with a team of public interest lawyers to sue the county on behalf of homeless sex offenders. “Most people getting out of prison go to their families because it’s really important to reintegrate into the community.”
Jonas described, in emotional terms, the plight of her clients. “We have an elderly client who’s got severe Parkinson’s disease … as well as hideous and disabling back problems,” she said. “We’ve got this client who all he wants in his life is to keep his job. His life is his job. And he’s one of the lucky ones because he’s been able to find and maintain employment. You can’t really even imagine a level of self-hatred that you get from just having everybody in society treat you like you’re radioactive just in your being.”
Florida’s Miami-Dade County has among the strictest residency restrictions for sex offenders of anywhere in America, thanks to a legislative change made in 2005.
That year, 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford of Homosassa, Florida, was tragically abducted, raped, buried alive, and murdered by a convicted sex offender who lived nearby.
In response to the Lunsford case, the Florida legislature passed a law toughening sex offender reporting requirements. Similar laws, named after Jessica, proliferated nationwide. On a more local level, Florida municipalities responded by strengthening their own laws related to sex offender residential restrictions. First, the city of Miami Beach, which is in Miami-Dade, passed a law mandating that sex offenders cannot live within 2,500 feet of schools or parks, which basically exiled that population from the island.
The county then followed suit. Under the county’s code, offenders are prohibited from living within 2,500 feet of schools, day care centers, and playgrounds.
These restrictions block off most of the county to sex offenders. In 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union in Florida found just 320 affordable rental units in the entire county that met the requirements, and the options available to indigent people are even more limited.
Sex offenders are often thought of as one of the most dangerous class of criminal deviants, and the tough politics around the topic mean that in a country moving full steam ahead on criminal justice reform, they’re left behind. For instance, Florida’s voters in November will get a chance to vote on Amendment 4, which would restore voting rights to most of Florida’s ex-felons. The two groups that are excluded from the amendment are those convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses.
The zero-sum game between justice for victims and the human rights of criminals has become a cornerstone of the push for more punitive laws nationwide.
That includes Florida. Many of its laws governing residential choices for sex offenders come from the advocacy of a single man: Ron Book, a prominent lobbyist whose daughter Lauren was sexually abused by her nanny. After Book discovered the abuse, he mounted a campaign in Florida to toughen sex offender laws, helping change the laws in over 60 municipalities in the state and nationwide, according to a 2009 Newsweek piece.
The resulting displacement in many locales, and the proliferation of homeless encampments full of sex offenders led Newsweek to dub Book as “the lobbyist who put sex offenders under a bridge.”
Book was featured in the award-winning 2016 documentary “Untouchable,” which looked at the impact of the laws. The film, which was directed by former public defender David Feige, featured both the gut-wrenching stories of victims of sexual abuse, as well as the testimonies of sexual offenders whose lives are regulated by a network of draconian laws after leaving prison.
Book also happens to be the man in charge of Miami-Dade’s Homeless Trust, which directs the county’s strategy to address homelessness. Last year, Book was one of the people who publicly called on the county to shut down the encampment in Hialeah — meaning that he is in charge of caring for the welfare of the homeless, while also advocating against a segment of the population.
Book also represents the private prison company Geo Group as a part of his lobbying day job. When Lauren Book, now a state senator, first ran for the legislature in 2015, the company pitched in $25,000 to her campaign.
Lisa Mozloom, a spokesperson for the Homeless Trust, said that the organization has been providing assistance on the ground at the encampment since last year.
“The Homeless Trust isn’t waiting till the last minute on this issue. They have been going on-site with teams of staff, offering services and support to these individuals since August of 2017,” she wrote to The Intercept. When asked whether Book’s role represents a conflict of interest, given that he has lobbied for tougher sex offender laws, she responded, “No, it does not.”
Because a considerable portion of the film takes place in south Florida, Feige teamed up with the Florida ACLU and rented a mobile projection unit and an inflatable screen, and screened the film at an intersection close to the encampment. At a discussion about the film later, he noted that a couple of the encampment’s residents had asked him if he was going to leave the port-a-potties installed there for the event. With sadness in his voice, Feige had told them that he would have to remove them after the event.
The county later installed port-a-potties and a washing station, Jonas told The Intercept, but only after officials had deemed the area a health hazard and told the residents they had 45 days to leave.
But it’s unclear whether the nation’s network of sex offender laws actually makes the average American safer.
There is little evidence that these laws are improving overall public safety, said J.J. Prescott, a University of Michigan law professor who has studied the laws’ impact.
“Do these laws actually make us safer?” he said. “What I’ve done in my work is try to answer that question. In my view, there’s no evidence they make us safer.”
He pointed to 2014 research focused on Michigan and Missouri; the authors of that study found “little evidence that residence restrictions changed the prevalence of recidivism substantially for sex offenders in the postrelease period.”
Research in other parts of the country has led to the same conclusion. In 2008, researchers at the Minnesota Department of Corrections looked at the offense patterns of every sex offender released from Minnesota’s prisons between 1990 and 2002 who was later re-incarcerated for a new sex offense prior to 2006.
After looking at all 224 cases of recidivism, they found that “of the few offenders who directly contacted a juvenile victim within close proximity of their residence, none did so near a school, park, playground, or other location included in residential restriction laws.”
There’s also a strong likelihood that the tough laws will lead to homelessness, said Jill Levenson, a professor at Barry University who is one of the country’s top experts on interventions designed to prevent sexual abuse. She’s published more than 100 articles on the subject and has more than 30 years of experience as a social worker, working with both survivors of abuse and offenders, as well as their families.
“What we have found over the years is a couple things,” she told The Intercept. “One is that there’s sort of this perfect storm of large distance buffers and high population density and high rental prices that all kind of come together to increase the likelihood that sex offenders will become transient or homeless.”
About 10 years of research on the subject show that there’s no proven relationship between where convicted sex offenders live and their likelihood of re-offending.
“There doesn’t seem to be any empirical relationship, no association or correlation between how far away somebody lives in relation to a school or park or playground and whether or not they re-offend,” she said. “The reason for that is because people don’t molest children because they live near a school. They abuse children when they are able to cultivate relationships with children and their family members, and they’re in a position of trust or authority or familiarity.”
That these laws have little empirical grounding is cold comfort to those in the Hiealeah encampment.
Linda Ridden lives in the camp with her husband, who is an offender. He was hit by a car last December and suffered a compound leg fracture. He is now unable to get regular medical care.
After the county decided to evict the camp residents, Ridden sent a letter to local officials describing the plight of those there, which she also provided to The Intercept:
These human beings are also suppose to work (felony cases who hires them? Very few.) and whether working or not pay: court costs, weekly class costs, evaluation expense…..So without running water, enough food, burning sun, or freezing cold, (for many: no bed, no covering from the elements, no ability to cook) in an area where Semi-Trucks constantly go by, the dirt is…(well there are time it won’t wash off no matter how hard you try and everything you touch is covered in it), The strong winds litterally [sic] tear up the tarps and tents, and in 1 1/2 years we’ve had 5 tents and double the tarps. Do you think you or one of your family members could survive this, more than survive but flourish as well?
She said in an interview that she and her husband will try to get bus tickets to leave the state, despite the fact she grew up in the Miami-Dade area. “We want to leave Florida. We just want to get out of here, it’s horrible here. The law, the police system, the justice system is not just,” she said.