Miami-Dade County

Homeless sex offenders file suit against Miami-Dade, arguing they're entitled to stay put.

Four homeless sex offenders living in tents outside Hialeah are suing to block Miami-Dade from dismantling their roadside encampment, arguing the county's own rules aimed at sexual predators have left them few options.

"Inhabitants of the encampment are not there by choice or circumstance," reads the request for an emergency injunction from unnamed plaintiffs. "They were forced into involuntary homelessness by Defendant's deliberate, long-standing policy of severely restricting where individuals formerly convicted of certain sexual offenses may reside in Miami-Dade County."

Ron Book, a lobbyist who helped write Miami-Dade's strict rules on sex offenders and now also serves as the volunteer head of the county's homeless program, disputes the idea that the tent-city inhabitants can't find a place to live. He said a county team assisting residents at the encampment Sunday night approved six different potential addresses with vacancies available for the tent dwellers.

"They can claim all they want," Book said of the advocates behind the suit. "It's just wrong and inaccurate."

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Patrick Wiese, convicted of lewd conduct toward a minor, leans on the plywood trailer he was building at the encampment of sex offenders outside Hialeah. Miami-Dade is promising to dismantle the camp after a judge tosssed a lawsuit trying to block enforcement of the county's anti-camping rule. DOUGLAS HANKS dhanks@miamiherald.com

The suit was filed Monday in Miami-Dade Circuit Court by Legal Services, a nonprofit group that represents people with low incomes. It seeks to block the county's planned dismantling of a tent encampment that's the official residence of more than 200 registered sex offenders, an unauthorized refuge that the suit said first appeared in 2013. It also asks a judge to bar removal of the temporary bathrooms and hand-washing stations recently installed at the encampment by the county.

Bunched on either side of Northwest 71st Street, the tents have dozens of long-term residents living on county-owned roadsides in the midst of a busy warehouse district.

Miami-Dade's homeless agency and police told tent residents they had to leave by Sunday, May 6, citing a recently enacted local law that makes it illegal to camp on county property. But with Legal Services threatening a lawsuit, the county late last week agreed to delay any potential enforcement until Thursday, May 10 at the earliest.

The new law excluded registered sex offenders from a homeless exemption in Miami-Dade's prohibition on camping on county property, which prevents arrests if someone can't be offered a bed at a county shelter. The county's shelter rules bar registered sex offenders, so they were exempt from arrest for a camping violation.

That was supposed to change with the county law passed in January, but the lawsuit claims roadsides don't fit the narrower definition of county property in the original ordinance. The suit, filed by Legal Services lawyer Jeffrey Hearne, claims the property must surround a county building for the anti-camping rules to apply.

If a judge rules against the four plaintiffs — listed as John Doe #1, John Doe #2, and so on — it would clear the way for Miami-Dade to order the current residents out after months of trying to coax them into vacating. Social workers have been on site offering rental vouchers and assistance trying to navigate the county's homeless system. The task is far more challenging with sex offenders, who are barred from living within 2,500 feet of a school. That county rule is stricter than the state limit of 1,000 feet.

The suit says Miami-Dade police had told residents who couldn't find homes to relocate to another camp, this one off Krome Avenue and Southwest 88th Street. The suit notes that camp — which the county now says it is discouraging residents from using — has no nearby bus stop or running water. The suit also said an arrest on the county's anti-camping law could trigger parole violations and send residents back to prison.

"If Plaintiffs relocate to another location, it will be another location where they are camping in public and could, once again, be subject to threat of arrest if they use a tent or shelter to protect themselves from the elements," reads the suit.

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