Getting homeless sex offenders off the streets
Seven years after Miami-Dade County shut down a camp housing about 100 homeless sex offenders under a bridge in Miami, it’s now trying to deal with an encampment on the outskirts of Hialeah that has almost three times as many people registered to live there.
Police and social workers on Monday night visited the roughly 30 tents set up near warehouses that sit by railroad tracks outside Hialeah’s city limits, the legally registered homes of almost 300 people convicted of sex offenses against minors and barred from living within 2,500 feet of schools, parks, daycare centers and other places where children congregate.
“This has got to close,” said Ronald Book, the powerful head of Miami-Dade’s homeless board who has also lobbied for the county’s tough residency restrictions on sex offenders. “The complaints have continued to grow and grow and grow.”
The encampment, in the area for about three years, stands as the latest replacement for the one under the Julia Tuttle Causeway in Miami that brought global attention to the county’s restrictions on homeless sexual offenders. More than 100 sex offenders lived in the encampment, some delivered there by probation officers after the convicts couldn’t find another place to legally reside.
Book said that about 270 offenders are registered as living in the tent village outside Hialeah, sitting on either side of the 3500 block of Northwest 71st Street. There is no electricity, running water or bathroom facilities, leading to complaints of human waste being tossed roadside and around the warehouses whose fences front the tents. Others use bathrooms at a Walmart and a Walgreens about a mile away.
Claudia Marie Baker, 58, who said she spent nine years in prison on child-pornography charges, has lived in a tent there for about a year. “My sister has five different real-estate people looking for places for me,” said Baker, who said she was convicted as a man, Gregory Baker. “Every place they picked, it was too close.”
The 2,500-foot restriction is far tougher than Florida’s 1,000-foot rule but matches the limit for some local governments across the country, including Lake County near Orlando and Pasco County north of Tampa. In dense Miami-Dade, hemmed in by the Everglades and the Atlantic Ocean, the 2,500-foot rule eliminates wide swaths of Miami-Dade’s housing stock as an option. The county also bars sex offenders from homeless shelters where families are housed, making most of the tax-funded emergency housing off-limits, too.
Miami-Dade adopted the 2,500-foot limit in 2010 after the Tuttle controversy, replacing a patchwork of city laws that generally had the same distance in their sex-offender restrictions.
The renewed focus on a replacement tent camp also revives attention to Book’s unusual role at the center of both issues: a volunteer board chairman who serves as the county’s de facto homeless director, and a top crusader for Miami-Dade cracking down on the same sexual offenders left homeless by the residency rules he helped enact. One of the most powerful lobbyists in both Miami-Dade and the state of Florida, his position landed him at the center of the Julia Tuttle controversy, with some tent residents naming the encampment Bookville.
Book’s daughter, Lauren Book, was the victim of sex abuse at the hands of the family’s nanny, and the experience propelled both Books into becoming advocates for tougher penalties for sex crimes against minors. Lauren Book, 32, started a foundation dedicated to the cause and then won a state Senate seat last year as a Democrat representing Broward County.
In 2010, when county commissioners were considering the proposed 2,500-foot limit for sex offenders, both Books spoke in favor of the rule. That day, commissioners not only voted to pass the legislation but also renamed it the Lauren Book Child Safety Ordinance.
Both Books were on hand Monday night, too, when the county invited media to cover the launch of outreach efforts at the tent encampment. After darkness fell on the tent camp in Miami-Dade, Sen. Book described the squalid village as part of a problem that requires some sort of legislative fix.
“I think the local law has caused unintended consequences,” she said. “You’re seeing it.”
Her father dismissed a suggestion that the tents standing nearly a decade after the Julia Tuttle controversy revealed a flaw in Miami-Dade’s approach.
“There are places [they] can live. You’ve got to go find those places,” he said in a telephone interview before the visit. “What sex offenders want to do is blame everybody else for the problem. They want to blame the laws and the residency restrictions.”
Gail Colletta, leader of an advocacy group pushing for changes in Florida’s residency requirements, said Miami-Dade captures the political hysteria over paroled offenders. Because most victims of childhood sexual abuse know their abusers, Colletta argued that the extreme measures governments take to keep offenders away from schools and parks don’t prevent crime but do lead to inhumane conditions like tent cities.
“Practically nobody is getting this right,” said Colletta, president of the Florida Action Committee, who described herself as the mother of a grown son who served prison time for possession of child pornography. “They’re all hung up on this false sense of security.”
The county shut down the Tuttle encampment in 2010, and Book said the homeless agency placed the more than 100 residents in private apartments and other residences outside of shelters and in compliance with the 2,500-foot limit. Monday’s deployment was designed to start a similar process, with the county offering to help with rental subsidies and placement to get the tent residents to move. The action followed a New Times story profiling the tent village in early August.
There have been other encampments in Miami since the Tuttle one closed, including one in Miami that lasted until 2012 when the city created a tiny park that triggered the 2,500-foot restriction. Book said that any former Tuttle residents living in the Hialeah encampment would have lost a prior home because Miami-Dade had determined that each registered Tuttle offender had found a place to live.
Miami-Dade’s restrictions on where sexual offenders live largely survived a suit by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2014, which was filed for anonymous plaintiffs that a lawyer said Monday were living in tents near Hialeah at the time. A federal judge rejected the bulk of the ACLU’s complaint that the local law constituted unfair punishment, but the nonprofit is appealing whether the county can enforce restrictions on offenders convicted before the law went into effect.
Jeff Hearne, a Miami lawyer working on the case, said the county rules create the problem that Miami-Dade spent Monday night trying to solve.
“It’s our position that forcing people into homelessness is punitive,” Hearne said.
Because probation rules require sex offenders to sleep at the addresses where they’re registered, he said, many tent residents could afford to live elsewhere if they were allowed to do so.
“Many of them have places they can go to,” he said. “They have family members who have homes that can keep them there. Many of them have rooms they rent to keep personal belongings. But at night, they’re forced to go out and sleep in tents.”