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Band-aid Applied to Florida’s Homeless Sex Offender Colony Falls Off

by David M. Reutter

When Florida’s Miami-Dade County adopted an ordinance that extended the 1,000-foot state law residency restrictions for sex offenders to 2,500 feet, the estimated 100 sex offenders who return to Miami-Dade each year after being released from prison were left with few options as to where they could live.

One of the few places they could reside was under the Julia Tuttle Causeway bridge. PLN has previously reported on this situation and the squalor that released sex offenders had to live in under the bridge to avoid violating conditions of their supervised release. [See: PLN, June 2008, p.1; July 2009, p.36; Dec. 2009, p.14].

In July 2009, as many as 140 people were living under the Julia Tuttle bridge. They had erected rickety shanties and installed a generator to provide electricity – for living necessities and to power their GPS monitors – but did not have running water.

Once the sex offender colony grew and began expanding from under the bridge into the public view, an uproar resulted with concerns about public safety and the impact of the county’s sex offender residency ordinance. Several lawsuits were filed, to no avail.

In October 2009, the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust awarded an $818,000 contract to Tampa Bay Lutheran Services to locate available housing, offer employment assistance and pay temporary rent and utilities for 92 sex offenders who were still living under the bridge.

After three years of effectively forcing sex offenders to form a homeless colony under the Julia Tuttle Causeway, officials put up “No Trespassing” signs and tore down the shanties. By March 2010 the entrance to the bridge colony was sealed off and the former residents were moved to alternative housing such as apartments, motels and trailer parks.

“The problem with this solution, it was only temporary; a band-aid,” said Jill Levenson, a professor at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida who is studying the impact of sex offender residency laws.

The county’s solution was to move homeless sex offenders from under the bridge into a few neighborhoods that complied with the residency restrictions, and to pay their rent and utilities for six months. However, the temporary leases began expiring in July 2010 and most of the offenders remain unemployed. “If they can’t afford rent, we may be back to square one,” said Levenson.

Ironically, the Homeless Trust’s chairman, Ron Book, had successfully lobbied to increase sex offender residency restrictions. He realizes the future is bleak for sex offenders in Miami-Dade. “I have deep concerns that these people, who have somehow assumed we are a welfare agency and that we have deep pockets, are going to end up back somewhere on the streets,” said Book. “We just don’t know where.”

Book is firm in his belief that the dilemma of homeless sex offenders is not due to residency requirements but rather their inability to find a job. In any event, they can expect no more assistance from the Homeless Trust. “As far as we’re concerned, our help for people under the bridge is done,” Book stated.

Upon their temporary leases expiring, the sex offenders from the bridge colony will either have to pay rent or move back onto the streets. They cannot go to homeless shelters because the shelters in Miami-Dade County are all in areas restricted to sex offenders.

Finding a job as an ex-convict is already tough; experts estimate the unemployment rate among former prisoners is 80%. Being without housing or other support makes it virtually impossible to find work, plus there is the added stigma of a sex offense conviction.

The Florida Department of Corrections is providing released sex offenders with a map that depicts places they can sleep. “If it’s a parking lot or a street corner or a wooded area, we have to make sure they stay there,” said FDOC spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger.

In the typical pass-the-buck mentality of government agencies, the state created the sex offender residency restrictions and the county expanded those restrictions, but neither wants to take responsibility for the resulting problem of homeless offenders living on the streets.

Source: Miami Herald

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