Darkness has swallowed the train tracks. It won't be long until the men arrive. At 9:50 p.m., the first pair of headlights punches through the black, and a white Ford pickup rolls into the parking lot of a large warehouse sitting among the nameless structures dominating the Miami-Hialeah border.
Within minutes, more men approach on foot, on bicycle, and by car. With a downtrodden but urgent gait, they stride into the parking lot. They hate it here. They wish they could be anywhere else, in another country, or back in prison, perhaps even dead. But they have no choice. It's almost 10 p.m. This is Miami-Dade County. And these 57 men are sex offenders.
"I'm a businessman myself," says Andre Moss, a wiry 38-year-old erecting a cheap black tent atop a cement stairwell. In 2010, he was convicted of sexual activity with a minor; for the past three years, he has spent every night here, in torrential downpours, in frigid temperatures, with neither a bathroom nor running water. "And I need to sleep up here so I can get my rest. It's too loud everywhere else here."
In 2007, New Times documented how a Miami-Dade County law severely restricting where sex offenders could live led to dozens of them forced to sleep under the Julia Tuttle Causeway. That story led to national outrage and local promises to fix a law meant to protect children from predators — but which many said created only more danger by placing offenders in the kind of desperate situations that led to new crimes.
Seven years later, it's clear the problem is as bad as ever. For the past five months, a growing community of sex offenders has swarmed these train tracks with tents, blankets, and lawn chairs. Because their probation imposes a curfew, the men must return here every night at 10 p.m. and stay until 6 a.m. or risk jail time.
"Not even dogs live like this," says one sharp-featured man who declined to offer his name. "We sleep on the ground, and you need this" — he hefts a flashlight — "when you go to shit in the bushes so you don't step in someone else's."
Worse, Miami-Dade County Police Department emails obtained by New Times show the camp has become a worrying security concern. The number of transient sex offenders has soared from 20 the year after the law was passed to 324 last July, according to police. With more sex offenders forced by law into homelessness every day, tracking the men has become almost impossible. Many have disappeared.
"Efforts to conduct mandated address verification on these sexual predators... is now impossible," says one memo sent to the unit that deals with sexual predators. "Those under supervision have assigned curfew hours, and the probation officers can check in [on them]. Individuals [off parole] have no such restrictions. This is a huge problem for law enforcement."
The fetid conditions in this parking lot underscore the deeper problems with Miami-Dade's flawed law. In 2005, following the rape and murder of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford in Homosassa, Florida, by a repeat sexual predator, Miami Beach effectively banned offenders from its mile-wide island with a new law restricting them from living within 2,500 feet of parks and schools — more than twice the distance mandated by the state. Fearing an influx of sex offenders from the Beach to the mainland, Miami-Dade passed an identical countywide law later that year.
Probation officers soon faced a nightmarish question no one could answer: Where were all the sex offenders supposed to go? Men who generally would have gone to live with family members after getting out of jail were now barred from doing so.
Probation officers began taking offenders to a giant overpass in Coral Gables — just one block from Kristi House, a treatment center for victims of sexual assault. They were also within 1,000 feet of two day-care centers and within 2,500 feet of eight schools.
New Times' revelations about that situation sparked an angry outcry, but another encampment sprouted months later, much larger than the first. This time, it was under the Julia Tuttle Causeway. For at least eight months, a new sex offender arrived every week. Some offenders were arrested for minor violations of their parole and thrown back in jail. Others vanished.
The growth of the community incited widespread condemnation of the law. Critics pointed out that the vast majority of sex crimes are committed by friends and family members and that 87 percent of sex offenders have no prior record. Studies also show that living under extreme duress — like sleeping on train tracks or under a bridge — only exacerbates criminal tendencies.
Yet the county law has never faced any serious attempts at reform. Its facilitator, superlobbyist Ron Book, whose daughter is a victim of sexual abuse, still cheers the ordinance. "Have I changed my mind on whether this law is good and important? No," he says. "It's cheap, demagogic rhetoric that people throw at this issue to make excuses for why the sexual deviant can't find places to live. Well, people aren't entitled to live wherever they want."