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March 12, 2012

Miami sex-crime offenders camp on slab of sidewalk in Shorecrest

3-12-2012 Florida:

Two years after dozens of sex offenders who’d lived under the Julia Tuttle Causeway were moved into apartments, offenders recently released from prison sleep on a Miami street.

Ostracized by harsh residency laws and barred from taking shelter under a bridge, as many as two dozen homeless sex offenders are now setting up camp nightly on a tiny slab of sidewalk in the Shorecrest residential neighborhood in northeast Miami.

With no roof over their heads, no beds to sleep on, the men gather by 10 each night at the southwest corner of Northeast 79th Street and 10th Avenue, on the concrete near a vacant lot owned by the city of Miami. They are usually gone and out of sight by 6 the next morning.

State probation officials are aware of the sidewalk camp — in fact, the men there say their probation officers directed them to the corner after leaving prison. Because of a strict Miami-Dade County law, the camp is in one of the few areas where sex offenders may legally reside.

But Miami officials are now considering a lawsuit against the state Department of Corrections, complaining that what they initially accepted as a temporary landing spot for released inmates has become a permanent fixture.

“I am extremely disappointed in the lack of progress and to discover that the sex offenders are now erecting tents in the public right of way at the location, a sign that they intend to make this location more than just their temporary reporting area,” city Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who represents Shorecrest, wrote the Department of Corrections last week.

Ron Book, the chairman of the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust, also blasted the corrections department, which has declined requests to alert the Trust — which provides services for the homeless — before letting ex-cons out to live on the street.

“I’m shocked. It makes me crazy. We worked very hard to make sure this crap didn’t happen again,” said Book, a lobbyist who also was a vocal advocate for the Miami-Dade County ordinance preventing sex offenders from residing near schools.

State prison officials say they are monitoring the offenders at the 79th Street camp, but insist that they are not instructing offenders to move to the site.

“We are not telling probationers to go live there,” said Ann Howard, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections. “We can’t tell them where they can live.”

Before sex offenders are released from custody, the corrections department does check on their future residences, to ensure that they comply with state and local laws limiting where sex offenders can live, Howard said. But Miami is a “difficult” location, because the county’s residency law for sex offenders is so strict.

The problem stems from a Miami-Dade County ordinance that bars sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of a school, exceeding the state’s 1,000-foot restriction. The county passed the law two years ago to eliminate a patchwork of even stricter laws — creating buffer zones around parks, daycare centers and even school bus stops — passed by several cities.

About five years ago, the laws forced more than 100 sex offenders to camp under the Julia Tuttle Causeway for nearly three years, with the blessing of the corrections department, which monitors felons on probation.

The Tuttle camp drew criticism from around the country before it was cleared out and fenced off, scattering the felons around Miami-Dade. But the county’s law still renders many spots off limits to sex offenders, funneling them into a handful of areas, such as the Shorecrest street corner that meets the rules.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against Miami-Dade in 2009, arguing its ordinance makes it impossible for sex offenders to find a place to live, endangering children even further because the public and police can’t keep tabs on their whereabouts. The case was thrown out, and an appeals court determined that the law was within the county’s authority.

Visits to the Shorecrest camp last week found more than a half-dozen men gathered on the sidewalk near 79th Street. The corner is listed as the home of some 24 “transient” sex offenders in the registry maintained by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Some spend the night dozing off in folding chairs. Others stay in their cars. One man lives in a tiny orange-and-green tent, protected by a zipper.

With no bathrooms, the men urinate in the corner of a field a few feet away.

All wear GPS bracelets on their ankles, to alert their probation officers if they stray too far away during the night. The encampment is on a desolate strip of 79th Street, between two fenced-in vacant lots, but only a few blocks from the residential neighborhoods of Belle Meade to the south and Shorecrest just north.

“I thought it was going to be a place with a roof. But no, it was here on the street,” said Edgardo Vargas, 49, married with a 17-year-old son. Peeping out from his tent, Vargas said: “There’s no bathroom, nowhere to take a shower. If I were not here, they’d send me back to prison.”

Said another man, a 49-year-old who declined to give his name: “People ride by and look at us like we’re animals or dogs. We sleep in chairs. It’s dangerous and scary, but we sleep. I don’t want my mom coming out here to see me, she can’t take it.”

Though state prison officials have denied directing newly released offenders to the camp, several of the felons told police that they went there after receiving a piece of scrap paper from their probation officers with the address of the intersection when they were released from prison, according to a memo by Miami Police Cmdr. Manuel Morales. Six of the men told a Miami Herald reporter that they were directed to the area by probation officers.

“This completely contradicts the previous statements made by the Corrections Department representative,” Morales wrote. “It is obvious that the state of Florida Corrections Department did not gain any wisdom from the Julia Tuttle bridge fiasco. I fear that if the issue remains unaddressed we could face an alarming influx of sexual offenders being assigned to our neighborhood streets.”

Dozens of other sex offenders live in apartments in the Shorecrest neighborhood. In all, 114 registered sex offenders live within one mile of the intersection of Northeast 79th Street and 10th Avenue, according to the FDLE.

Sarnoff, for one, believes the city should take the state to court. Though Miami police have been aware of the encampment for a while, the commissioner said it was supposed to be temporary, until permanent shelter was found. Last week he wrote a letter to the corrections department saying he was “extremely disappointed in the lack of progress.”

Now, Sarnoff is preparing a resolution seeking city commission approval to file a lawsuit to prevent the corrections department from directing inmates to the Shorecrest streets. The proposal is expected to be addressed at the commission’s March 22 meeting.

But the measure does not address the larger question: How can cities prevent sex offenders from setting up camps if the ex-cons can’t find housing?

After the Julia Tuttle camp was disbanded in 2010, the Homeless Trust spent almost $1 million on temporary housing for more than 100 displaced felons. The Trust provided rent subsidies for about three to five months, but only to those who tried to find work or job training, Book said.

“We attempted training and job placement, but they didn’t want to go,” said Book. “We’re not a welfare agency. That’s not what we do. There were people who thought we would pay their rent forever.”

In 2008, the Homeless Trust reached a wide-ranging agreement with the county jail system, the courts, the public health system, the Department of Children & Families and area mental health providers to ensure that the Trust is alerted before a homeless person is released, so the Trust could try to find housing or other services.

As part of the agreement, the Trust also asked state prison officials to alert the agency six months before releasing any felons — including sex offenders. But officials with the corrections department refused to sign the deal, Book said.

Book, after learning about the 79th Street camp from a Herald reporter, sent a Trust staffer to inspect the site on Thursday night. He said the agency will try to find housing for some of the sex offenders, but he can’t give them priority over others in need of shelter.

“There are places these guys can go,” he said. “They do not need to be out on the street.” ..Source.. by CHARLES RABIN AND SCOTT HIAASEN

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