Hundreds of Miami Sex Offenders Live in a Squalid Tent City Near Hialeah

Cradling a heavy box of Budweiser against his flour-dusted apron, Mario Medina clicks open the door and greets two waitresses behind the counter at La Cascada, a retro Cuban pizza parlor in Northwest Miami-Dade. Besides the voice of a sports commentator on the TV and sporadic blips from arcade games in the back, the restaurant is quiet, and all five tables are empty. It's 30 minutes into the lunch rush hour, but only three weary patrons in construction boots sit hunched over glasses of cold beer at the bar.

"Before, we got more than 200 customers every week," says Medina, La Cascada's husky, white-mustached 58-year-old manager. "Now it's 90 at best." Over the past few months, Medina has lost 40 percent of his regulars, including many families that are afraid to bring their children to the area or to park their cars out front, he says. Though the place used to make about $8,000 every week, it's now down to $3,000, which must be split among the restaurant's five employees.

Medina attributes the parlor's drop in customers to one problem. Less than a block away, pitched along both sides of the road, are 28 camping tents. In them live scores of registered sex offenders.

The encampment is the result of a 2005 county law — much stricter than a similar measure passed by the state ten years earlier — that imposes restrictions on where sexual offenders and predators may live. It eliminated many residential neighborhoods, public housing complexes, and homeless shelters. So the offenders were exiled to live under a Dolphin Expressway overpass, then the Julia Tuttle Causeway, and a spot near the Miami River. In 2014, the colony moved to this block between train tracks in the warehouse district.

No one argues that their crimes, which include everything from sexting with minors on dating apps to raping children, aren't serious. But critics of the camp consider it an outrage that human beings are forced to live in such horrendous conditions — in some cases, for several years. Although it's been three years since New Times described the encampment as a sanitation and security nightmare where offenders are forced to defecate in public with no running water, occupants say it has only increased in density. Dozens of sex offenders now live there in donated tents, while an additional 20 to 40 drive in before dusk for curfew and sleep overnight in their cars. Residents and local business owners have filed complaints, yet county officials and local police departments have failed to act in any meaningful way.

"They're there all day every day," says Mary Grafton, whose family owns a custom furniture factory two blocks from the camp. "It's affecting our business, but we're at a loss of what to do." Grafton and other business owners have filed complaints with the police and county commission, but she says the response is always the same: "Our hands are tied."

Initially, a 1995 state law prohibited offenders from living within 1,000 feet of schools, daycare centers, and playgrounds. Then, in 2005, a child-molesting drifter raped and murdered a 9-year-old 340 miles away in Homosassa, Florida. David Dermer, then mayor of Miami Beach, proposed an ordinance that increased the residency restriction to 2,500 feet, effectively making the entire city off-limits when it passed. Fearing that sex offenders would simply migrate from the Beach to the mainland, Miami-Dade commissioners a couple of months later unanimously agreed to extend the county's distance to 2,500 feet as well.

"Now they put an ankle monitor and say to stay here. There's no logic. He can't even walk!"

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For years, sex offenders struggled to find addresses that satisfied the harsh countywide ordinance. Even when they found a place, they were often evicted and relocated once a new school was built in their vicinity. By 2014, probation officers called the warehouse district in North Miami-Dade one of the last few places in the county where sex offenders could live. Since then, many have reluctantly called it home.

According to the Miami-Dade Police Department, 233 sex offenders are registered to the area of NW 71st Street and NW 36th Court. Eighty-eight are on probation with ankle monitors tracing their movement.

The area, which straddles the boundary between Hialeah and Liberty City, has no outhouse, so offenders squat outdoors behind an orange Schneider shipping container to defecate. The smell is rank in the summer heat. Without an active sewer line, muddy drainage collects along the curb, mixing with debris and waste. Local businesses have removed knobs from outdoor water spigots, and the only public bathroom is in a Walmart one mile away.

Though a Key Biscayne church group delivers hot meals, water, and snacks Tuesday evenings, it's merely a Band-Aid on a festering wound.

Summer storms flood the encampment daily. Though most tents are mounted on plastic and wooden platforms, everything is constantly soaked. Brett Borges, a 49-year-old from Hollywood, shows the ripped seams on his tent. An entire side has been duct-taped several times. As he pulls out a green camo sleeping bag, water and sand fall from the fabric. "Every time it rains, we get flies and mosquitoes," he says. "It's ripe for disease... Animals live better than this."

In 2014, Borges, then 46 years old, solicited nude photos and requested sex from an undercover cop posing as a 15-year-old boy on Grindr, a gay social networking app. At the time, he was making $1,200 a week as a senior sales clerk for Kraft Foods. After traveling to meet the minor at a hotel in Fort Lauderdale, Borges was sentenced to 21 months in prison. Released this past February, he says, "This was my first offense. I've never even gotten a parking ticket."

From morning to night, truck drivers passing the sleeping tent inhabitants taunt and honk their horns. Because offenders' addresses are listed in the public registry, living on the streets has involved never-ending harassment and peril, Borges says: "We've had bottles and eggs thrown at us."

Sigifredo Benitez, a 52-year-old from Cuba recently released after a 22-year prison sentence, acknowledges local businesses have been overwhelmingly upset: "They don't want us here, and we don't want to be here." The former handyman has spent three months of his lifetime probation at the camp. "We can't get jobs or see our families," Benitez says. "The county law, it's fucked my life forever."

Luis Marcelo Concepcion Rosado, a 73-year-old from Miami Beach long ago charged with groping his niece, has lived at the encampment for three years. Suffering from a dislocated hip and a heart valve problem, he lifts a pant leg to reveal a blistering, inflamed skin infection below his ankle monitor. "Prejuicio," he mumbles, as tears well up behind thin-rimmed glasses. Translating, his friend Benitez exclaims, "He says 'prejudice' because they refuse him medication. Now they put an ankle monitor and say to stay here. There's no logic. He can't even walk!"

Because there are no electrical outlets, a few offenders pooled their savings to buy a generator. Connected to it is a mess of USB cables, some connected to iPhones, others charging ankle bracelets. "We're a family," Borges says. "We look out for each other because no one else does."

Less than a block away, Juan Escobar, the 43-year-old manager of a collision repair business, says the camp is just as much of a health hazard to the people who work in the area. Bordering the right side of his garage are train tracks littered with rubbish such as half-eaten bags of cereal, soiled socks, and wet boxer shorts. "The city pretty much only comes out once a month to clear the tracks," he says.

Most concerned are the small, family-owned businesses. Steve Grafton, Mary's husband, inherited Grafton Furniture from his parents, who had bought the building in 1969. Inside, dainty swatches of brocade and velvet dangle in the showroom. "Our customers are high-end interior designers and architects," Steve says. He points in the direction of the encampment two blocks down the road: "It's an embarrassment."

Steve says he worries about his store's female employees, especially his wife Mary and their 25-year-old daughter Melissa. "It's dangerous after dark," he says. "I've had to make sure everyone goes home before 6 p.m."

Yusein Musa, the 42-year-old owner of Florida Cold Services, a refrigeration export business, has found broken needles outside his building. Musa's wife, sister-in-law, brother, and nephew all work in the office. His 11-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter often visit as well. "We're law-abiding businesspeople who pay taxes, but now we're watching our backs constantly," he says.

Musa says he has called the Miami-Dade Police Department at least 50 times to report disturbances, but Det. Robin Pinkard, the department's representative, claims "no more than a half-dozen complaints have been received." She writes in an email: "We do not keep track of the living conditions of transient sexual offenders." She also says the department makes weekly visits to the site, as does the Florida Department of Corrections. MDPD doesn't elaborate on the contradiction.

Desperate, business owners have put up barbed-wire fences. Medina even hauled his restaurant's dumpster into the gated area out back after offenders kept throwing bags of feces in it.

But the head of the county's Homeless Trust, Ron Book, a major facilitator of the law in 2014, still abides by his original judgment: "The Constitution doesn't guarantee where you can live when you break the law," he says. Asked whether anything can be done to address the plight of business owners in the warehouse district, he says, "I didn't suggest [offenders] congregate there."

He adds that the county has housing where offenders can go, though he can't name any. (Local shelters say they are too close to schools.) With no intent to reexamine or reduce the county restriction, Book says, "It's not a question of will they reoffend; it's a question of when." Several studies, however, report sex offender recidivism rates to be less than 36 percent.

In 2014, County Commissioner Xavier Suarez told New Times: "That we restrict where [offenders] can live and not provide any facilities for them isn't human or logical." Three years later, he deflects responsibility to the local police: "I don't know that there's any political will to treat these people as homeless."

Slumped in a chair in front of La Cascada, Medina adds, "One time, [the offenders] called the police on me." He repeats the statement and then explains, "I had music in my restaurant for my patrons, but [the offenders] said it was too loud. They couldn't sleep. Can you believe it? They come to my restaurant to use the bathroom — no shoes, no shirt — but the police came and told me to stop."

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Isabella Vi Gomes was a writing fellow at Miami New Times. She graduated from Princeton University in 2016. She then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.