52 Sex Offenders Live Under Bridge in Miami—ACLU Studying Issue

March 30, 2009 - 12:22 PM
Miami Sex Offenders Still Living Under Bridge

A Tuesday Feb. 5, 2008 photo shows the makeshift camp that sex offenders call home under the Julia Tuttle Causeway in Miami. The state of Florida has not been able to dissolve the community of sex offenders living under the bridge. (AP Photo/David Adame, File)

Miami - A sandy shoreline runs outside Patrick Wiese’s front door. A white crane toes through gentle blue-green waters as the sun beams overhead. The view of downtown is spectacular, the fishing good and the rent free.
 
Yet he’d give it all up for a bed in a warehouse.
 
Wiese is among 52 sex offenders living under a busy bridge over Biscayne Bay that connects Miami to Miami Beach.  The state insisted two years ago it would urge them to leave, but the community has only grown.
 
It has become a makeshift town of parolees and others who struggle to find affordable housing that doesn’t violate strict local ordinances against sex offenders living too close to schools, parks and other places children congregate.
 
In the angled area where the bridge meets a concrete slope, residents have put up domed tents, a shack housing a makeshift kitchen, a camper, even a weight bench. They've spray painted the slope and the pillars supporting the bridge: “We ‘R’ Not Monsters.” “They Treat Animals Better!!!” “Why?”
 
“They throw us under here and just hope that we can do something ourselves,” said 47-year-old Wiese, standing in the doorway to a small shack made of collected wood scraps.  “If I was a murderer, they would help me, they would find me a home, they would find me a job.”
 
The community started in 2007 with a few men camping out beneath the Julia Tuttle Causeway, the result of rules strengthened in Miami-Dade County two years earlier and a bevy of overlapping local ordinances.  A year later, there were 19, and the state vowed it would help them find housing. That never happened, and more kept arriving.
 
Jo Ellyn Rackleff, a spokeswoman for the Florida Corrections Department, acknowledges the problems with the arrangement.
 
“We have talked to them, they demonstrate that they're looking, but they just haven't been able to find anything. There's so many restrictions in that area of Florida," she said. "It's just a situation that's unsolvable at this point.”
 
Once entered in the sex offender registry, a person typically stays for life. In Miami-Dade County, such people must live at least 2,500 feet from places children gather, making only a handful of areas--generally out of an offender's price range--possible homes. The county’s rules governing its 1,030 registered sex offenders are considered among the state’s most restrictive.
 
Many offenders have family or friends who would house them but can't because they live too close to a school or playground or bus stop.
 
The state says offenders found the bridge because it was among the few covered places in compliance with the local ordinances. Officials say probation officers haven't suggested it outright, though some residents dispute that. Either way, it has become one of the only solutions.
 
“Sometimes when a probation officer is helping somebody to look for a place to live and they're not having any luck and the probation officer is required to know where a person is every night, they may suggest that there is a place where they can check on them," Rackleff said.
 
Politicians are often reluctant to touch such an issue, as there is little public compassion for those who molest children or rape women, though many sex offenders at the Tuttle and elsewhere have committed lesser offenses.
 
The Miami chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is studying the issue before deciding how to push for a change to the rules in Miami-Dade County and its municipalities.
 
“They have been given absolutely no hope or no recourse to change the situation,” said chapter president Carlene Sawyer, who can see the causeway from her office and can't help thinking of the people living underneath it when a storm rolls in.
 
“This is un-American,” she said.
 
Many of the residents work. On a recent afternoon, some were fishing. At night, they watch TVs powered by a generator and play dominoes and cards. Leaders have emerged in the community, and while parole officers visit, offenders mostly police themselves.
 
The air is tinged with sea salt, and the cars never stop passing overhead, yet perfect Atlantic waters make it strangely serene. Residents have even seen dolphins and manatees near the shore.
 
Wiese sleeps in a tiny shack with two TVs, a CD player, microwave and a night stand made of a black plastic milk crate that holds an ashtray and a can of Miller High Life. He was found guilty of lewd or lascivious molestation of a minor, a crime he claims he didn't commit.
 
He says the state offers him and his neighbors no help and that more people keep coming here, unable to find anyplace else. He wonders why the state can't arrange for them to live in a warehouse--anything better than this. Asked if there's anything good about his situation, he thinks for a moment before replying.
 
"I got a good view," he said. "That's about it."