For nearly three years, county officials and police in Miami-Dade failed to respond as a tent city of sex offenders grew along train tracks near Hialeah. The squalid camp is just the latest consequence of a 2005 county law that bans sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of any school, daycare center, or park, effectively banishing them into homelessness under highway overpasses and the Julia Tuttle Causeway until they were forced into this remote industrial corner. More than 300 offenders are now registered in the area — living without running water, electricity, or plumbing.
Furious local businesses and property owners have repeatedly begged the county to do something, but their grievances have fallen on deaf ears. That is, until this past Monday.
About two weeks after New Times published an in-depth story about the deplorable conditions in the growing encampment, calling it a "sanitation and security nightmare," Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust workers, city officials, and police officers visited the site. Now they've announced a new campaign they claim will finally find housing for the long-transient sex offenders.
Among those supporting the move is Homeless Trust chairman Ron Book and his daughter, state Sen. Lauren Book, who both visited the camp after New Times' story was published. Book, whose day job is an über-influential lobbyist, has long backed the county's harsh restrictions on sex offender housing. And when New Times contacted him earlier this month, he argued that "the Constitution doesn't guarantee where you can live when you break the law." At the time, he insisted he had no intention of reexamining or changing the county's rules, asserting that "it's not a question of will [sex offenders] reoffend; it's a question of when."
So has Book changed his tune? "This has got to close," he said of the camp Monday in an interview with the Miami Herald.
The lobbyist insists that, in fact, nothing has changed. Book says the county is simply allocating resources to the sex offenders for temporary rental assistance, such as first month's rent and security deposits. But he says that service has always been available to the offenders and blames them for lacking the initiative to arrange proper housing.
So why is the county finally stepping in now? "It's become a health hazard and a health emergency," Book says. Even though he had no response when New Times asked him about the tent city's sanitary risks two weeks ago, Book claims, "I was only notified a week ago. Before that, nobody ever said this was a health crisis."
He admits local property owners have filed complaints over the years but argues that the taxpayer-funded Homeless Trust "[doesn't] operate based on people complaining." Instead, Book states that the role of the Trust is to "provide assistance equally to the homeless" but that it is "not [his] job to find housing for sex predators and offenders."
Because offenders are prohibited from living in most subsidized federal housing and homeless shelters due to the restriction, it is their responsibility "to avail themselves to other funding paths for housing," Book says. "It's not a free lunch."
Even so, many county officials, such as Commissioner Xavier Suarez, insist there must be a better legislative solution to deal with the tent city. In a 2014 interview, Suarez told New Times: "That we restrict where [offenders] can live and not provide any facilities for them isn't human or logical."
Regardless, Book says the county will soon announce a deadline to shut down the encampment, essentially evicting the sex offenders once again.
Where will they go when this tent city is closed? That's up to them, Book says.