In 2007, New Times broke national news with a story about how a group of sex-offenders was forced to live in tents underneath the Julia Tuttle Causeway because of restrictive laws barring them from living within thousands of feet of schools or playgrounds. Their case became a focal point in efforts to reform the nation's laws governing sex criminals. After a local outcry, the Tuttle colony was uprooted — but soon rematerialized near Hialeah, once again sparking national debate.
After New Times wrote about the new encampment last August, Miami-Dade County ordered the offenders to leave by last Sunday before extending that deadline to this Thursday because of protests. Now, in response, the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, Legal Services of Greater Miami, and the Florida Justice Institute filed a joint lawsuit yesterday in an attempt to block the removals, arguing they're just the latest in the county's whack-a-mole approach that doesn't fix the root problem of overly restrictive residency rules.
“The County’s decision to evict and arrest those living at the encampment shows that the County has no intention of eradicating homelessness or ensuring public safety,” ACLU of Florida Legal Director Nancy Abudu said yesterday in a news release. “Instead, it is simply shifting the problem to another location and ignoring the reality of the unsafe, unsanitary conditions in which so many people are living. This lawsuit is an effort to halt the county’s unlawful actions.”
Last August, New Times toured the encampment, where a reporter counted nearly 20 tents and "hundreds" of residents and noted the collection of people was scaring customers away from a nearby bar. Many of the residents have been convicted of heinous crimes, including rape. Obviously, no one argues that such sex criminals shouldn't be harshly punished, but criminal-justice-reform advocates say current laws in Miami mean rehabilitation is essentially impossible; in fact, they argue, the laws create public danger by forcing many former offenders into homelessness and squalor.
Miami-Dade County passed its sex offender law in 2005, which was much stricter than state regulations passed in the '90s. That county law led to the Tuttle encampment: Internal records New Times obtained in 2008 showed state officials had forced offenders to live in the Tuttle colony or face jail time. (The story noted Florida had "the distinction of being the first state in the union to order its residents to live under a bridge.") After the colony grew to more than 100 people, Miami-Dade County amended its offender laws in 2010, but the rules still said former felons couldn't live within 2,500 feet of a school, making the vast majority of the school-filled county unlivable for most former inmates.
By 2013, the camp had migrated to its current spot near train tracks in Northwest Miami-Dade. After New Times toured the camp again in August, county officials waged a war to clean up the area
In November, the county proposed one solution: jailing the offenders again by taking away their right to go to a homeless shelter instead of facing an "illegal camping" charge if caught outside. An amended version of the ordinance passed in January despite protests from the ACLU.
Things have now come to a head. Despite the fact that homeless shelters will not accept the offenders, the county at the end of April ordered the camp's residents to clear out by May 10 or face jail time. The county warned it plans to remove bathrooms and a hand-washing station on the premises.
"The residence restriction ordinance excludes nearly all available and affordable housing in the County," the suit reads. "This is in part due to its breadth, Miami-Dade County’s population-density, and the county’s large number of schools. Below is a map of residential housing outside the excluded areas, before considering availability or affordability."
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The trio of legal advocacy groups warns that the offenders who clear out will almost certainly be forced into another encampment. Lawyers note the county has suggested "banishing" the offenders to the edge of the Everglades, at Krome Avenue and Kendall Drive, where access to public transportation or adequate work is nearly nonexistent. (According to the lawsuit, the county changed its mind about that location after residents complained.)
Rather than finding a new place to shuffle the offenders around once more, the ACLU and other groups instead want a judge to file an injunction barring the offenders' evictions and to rule that the current residency rules constitute "cruel and unusual punishment" and are, therefore, unconstitutional.
“Since the housing ban lasts for life, many of these people are elderly, infirm, or incapacitated,” Valerie Jonas, a lawyer working with the ACLU of Florida, said in yesterday's release. “If the hundreds of individuals are banished to the border of the Everglades, they will be forced to live out their lives on the literal margins of society without any cover from the elements. The county created this problem by restricting areas in which our clients can and cannot live, and the county can solve this problem now by repealing the residency restriction.”