For five years, Miami-Dade County’s sex offender law has sparked national headlines, as homeless parolees have been forced to move from street corners to parking lots because of a law that prohibits them from squatting near public spaces where children gather.
Now, the dozens of homeless sex offenders — shuffled from under the Julia Tuttle Causeway to a Shorecrest street corner and finally to a parking lot near train tracks and warehouses just outside Hialeah — have a voice arguing on their behalf.
On Thursday, the national chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in federal court reasoning that Miami-Dade County and the state Department of Corrections have violated the offenders’ basic rights to personal safety, and to maintain a home.
The suit doesn’t name the ACLU’s clients, referring to them as John Doe 1, 2 and 3.
“It undermines public safety. It’s harder to find a job and maintain treatment. Housing stability is just as critical to these folks as to anyone else,” said Brandon Buskey, staff attorney for the Criminal Law Reform Project at the ACLU in New York City.
But the man behind the controversial county ordinance said no one has the right to demand where they live. Ron Book, the powerhouse state lobbyist and chair of the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust, said the courts have upheld the residency restrictions, and the ACLU is simply regurgitating an issue that’s been dealt with.
“The U.S. Supreme Court has said they’re entitled to live places that don’t endanger the health, safety and welfare of law-abiding citizens of the U.S. But they’re entitled to take their $350 to the courthouse,” Book said of the ACLU. “I don’t support those with sexual deviant behavior living in close proximity to where kids are.”
The 22-page lawsuit, filed in the U.S. Court’s Southern District, calls the county ordinance vague, says it doesn’t allow sex offenders their due process, and adds that it leaves them in a vulnerable position and unsafe.
“These individuals, who frequently subsist on meager incomes after being released from prison, are unable to locate stable, affordable housing in Miami-Dade County. This transience is primarily because the ordinance arbitrarily renders off-limits broad swaths of housing,” according to the complaint.
Assistant County Attorney Gerald Sanchez said the county won't comment on pending litigation.
At the center of the battle between the ACLU and Miami-Dade is a law approved in 2010 called the Lauren Book Safety Ordinance. Lauren Book, Ron Book’s daughter, was sexually molested by a trusted nanny for six years, starting when she was 11. Lauren Book-Lim, now married and 29, is an advocate for the sexually abused.
The 2010 ordinance was created after nearly 100 offenders were sent scrambling from squalid living conditions under the Julia Tuttle Causeway. The new law doesn’t allow offenders on parole within 2,500 feet of schools, parks, bus stops, or any other place children might congregate. Before the law, Miami-Dade followed a less restrictive state-created 1,000-foot law.
But the county ordinance had unintended consequences: It left sex offenders with few living options and almost immediately became a hot-button issue around the nation, even the world. There’s even a Wikipedia page about it.
Miami-Dade’s sexual offender homelessness issue first came to light in late 2009, when images of 92 homeless sex offenders living in plywood and cardboard sleeping quarters tucked under the Julia Tuttle Causeway at the height of the recession were splashed across TV.
At the time, the county was still following the 1,000-foot state law.
Though the homeless offenders had been living there for about three years, embarrassed officials put up “No Trespassing” signs under one of the main causeways linking Miami and Miami Beach, and tore down the rickety structures. A promise to spend $1 million to find housing for the offenders didn’t solve the problem.
The new, tougher, 2,500-foot ordinance was created mainly because of the Julia Tuttle fiasco.
By 2012, another group of a few dozen showed up at a street corner in Shorecrest, a tiny residential and commercial neighborhood in Miami’s northeast corner. They slept on sidewalks and a median just off busy 79th Street.
That was until Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff opened Little River Pocket Park a couple months later, on a piece of barren city-owned land between some homes that at the time was filled with rusted toys and a metal carport frame. The park was only a few hundred feet from where the offenders called home.
They had to leave again.
Then in the summer of 2013, 54 offenders were ushered out of a trailer park on the outskirts of Allapattah. This time they were living too close to a school for troubled kids called The Miami Bridge Youth and Family Services.
State correction officials said they were unaware the facility was even considered a school when they first ushered the offenders to the trailer park.
So off the offenders went again, this time to a Hialeah-area parking lot at Northwest 71st Street and 36th Court, surrounded by warehouses and train tracks.
There are no bathrooms and there is no electricity. Many sleep without a roof over their heads. Others sleep in cars or in makeshift tents, defecating in a field nearby.
Howard Simon, executive director of the Florida chapter of the ACLU said no entity should be allowed to strip anyone of their basic rights and force them into “dangerous and squalid conditions.”
“This is the second chapter of the same sad story,” he said. “The county provoked international outrage when it forced people to live under the Julia Tuttle bridge. Now it’s forcing people to live alongside railroad tracks.”