Homeless Sex Offenders Lose Legal Fight, Will Be Forced Out of Camp Near Hialeah

The encampment near Hialeah.
The encampment near Hialeah. Photo by Isabella Gomes
Miami-Dade has no idea what to do about its homeless sex offender camp, an ongoing catastrophe that New Times exposed more than a decade ago in a story about a camp beneath the Julia Tuttle Causeway. Harsh residency restrictions, which prevented sex offenders from living within thousands of feet of schools, have basically made most of the county off-limits to former offenders.

Their latest encampment sits near Hialeah by some train tracks, but after New Times wrote about the subhuman conditions at the camp last year, the county vowed to shut it down and clear everyone out. Officials had warned the inhabitants they needed to clear out by yesterday or face arrest — and yesterday a county judge killed a lawsuit that could have prevented the camps from being bulldozed.

"Today, we represented the rights of homeless individuals who are prohibited from residing in most areas of our county and cannot find housing," Legal Services of Greater Miami wrote online yesterday. "We asked the court to stop the county from closing an encampment and thus putting them at risk of arrest for their involuntary homelessness. The request was denied."
Legal Services had joined the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the nonprofit Florida Justice Institute in asking a court to declare the county's residency rules "cruel and unusual punishment" and therefore unconstitutional. The groups are not asking courts to go easy on convicted sex criminals, but justice-reform advocates say Miami's residency restrictions actually harm public safety by forcing former felons into a lifetime of homelessness.

The rules currently bar offenders from living within 2,500 feet of a school (significantly farther than Florida's state rule of 1,000 feet) and also ban offenders from sleeping in local homeless shelters. So hundreds of offenders say they're basically forced into camping outdoors in remote corners of Miami.

In 2013, dozens of registered offenders set up a tent city near NW 71st Street and NW 36th Court, an industrial corner near the train tracks. By last year, 233 registered offenders lived there. Now it will be shut down.
The residents, in turn, will almost certainly find a new place to sleep outdoors. The county had initially suggested banishing the group to Krome Avenue near the Everglades, but local officials stopped promoting that idea after neighbors in the area complained.

According to the Miami Herald's Doug Hanks, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Pedro Echarte Jr. said the four offenders who had sued didn't have standing to bring a case against the county. But Hanks reported that the judge did say the camps were a moral abomination.

"Conditions so bad that most of us would not want our family pets living there," Echarte said, per the Herald. "Sadly, neither the outcome of this motion, nor this case, will correct this serious societal problem. That has to come from the executive and legislative branch."

Earlier this week, the man in charge of homeless services in Miami-Dade County — pugnacious superlobbyist Ron Book — appeared on CBS Miami to debate ACLU of Florida lawyer Jeanne Baker. Book, who is one of the biggest reasons Miami has a homeless-sex-offender-camp problem, yelled at Baker while claiming the ACLU "wants" to keep homeless offenders stuck outdoors, a claim Baker dismissed as ludicrous.
Now, the latest court ruling — absent any changes in Miami's residency laws — guarantees another camp will spring up somewhere soon.

"Our clients are disappointed that the county can close the encampment and are reviewing their options," Legal Services announced. "Due to the difficulty of finding housing, they will likely relocate to another street corner, new encampments will form, and this cycle will continue."
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.