Sex Offenders Set Up Camp

Click here to view a slideshow of the bridge community.

Another one showed up last night. Around 10 — just before curfew — a car rolled in under the bridge and the newcomer got out with his wife. She hugged and kissed him goodbye, pulled the car out along the road, and disappeared into a sea of headlights.

The new guy sits by the side of the Julia Tuttle Causeway, talking to a group of men huddled atop a collection of lawn chairs, buckets, and plastic crates facing the water, toward the Miami skyline.

"I can't believe this shit," he booms. Nearly six feet tall and 250 pounds, endowed with a voice like a fire engine, he has already earned his new nickname: Big Man. The men listen with mild sympathy. "They're shocked; the new guys are in shock," explains Patrick Wiese, who has been living under the bridge since July.

Until last week, Big Man was serving a four-year sentence for cocaine possession. A few days ago, he was looking forward to leaving prison and reuniting with his wife, until he got the news: Instead of going home, he'd be living under a bridge, a parole commission officer told him. That's because 23 years ago, when he was 19 years old, Big Man was charged with sexual assault on a minor. (He claims the victim was his girlfriend and that it was consensual.)

"When they told me I was coming down here, my legs was shaking," he says. "Me and my wife drove around all day trying to find the place. She was saying, 'Maybe you should go back to jail; I don't want you living under no bridge.'"

In March, New Times revealed the Florida Department of Corrections was housing sex offenders under an overpass near the county courthouse; the state responded by moving the men here. The reason: A 2005 county ordinance prohibits sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of any school, so nearly the entire county has become off-limits to them.

The story was picked up by national media outlets, and for a few weeks the bridge was a source of widespread disbelief. Statements were made, resolutions were passed, letters were sent — but nothing changed. Since then, much to the relief of local politicians, no doubt, the situation seems to have quietly faded from public memory.

But the numbers kept growing. More than 30 men have been sent to live here in the intervening months. A few have since left — the majority of them arrested for minor violations of probation, two or three were able to move out, and two have disappeared. But most — as of press time, at least 20 — remain under the bridge, even though many have families willing to house them. Everyone agrees the situation under the Julia Tuttle has become untenable, but so far neither local politicians, nor the courts, nor the state legislature have been willing to do anything about it.

And so the men have begun to settle in. From discarded wood, they've built 15-foot ladders to ascend the concrete embankment that leads to a small, flat space beneath the bridge, where they sleep. A system of handmade pallets elevates them above the water that collects in their sleeping quarters when it rains (luckily for them, there weren't any hurricanes this year). One bridge dweller bought a generator; the others are expected to pitch in for the privilege of electricity with whatever they can — money, food, beer, or labor. Every night, work projects are afoot: cleaning the ground beneath the bridge, futzing with the generator, tending a grill large enough to cook for all of them at once. At least six animals share quarters with the men — a Doberman, a pit bull, a Yorkshire terrier, and three cats.

"We are a colony," Wiese explains, "and we gotta work it like that."

Long before dawn, the men are up and packing. Silently they stow their bedding, brush their teeth, and perform perfunctory toilet duty by the bay. The minute their curfew ends, at 6 a.m., they are gone. The drivers pull out along the muddy grass by the causeway, through a break in the railing, and into the stream of traffic. The walkers ascend the embankment by the bridge, step over the rail, and make their way along the causeway. From the top of the bridge you can see them, every morning, their figures getting smaller and smaller until they vanish in the pale light of another day in Miami.

Two years ago, Miami Beach Mayor David Dermer successfully pushed an ordinance that prohibited sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of any school in his city — two and a half times farther than the state law's distance, which already prohibited offenders from living within 1,000 feet of schools, daycare centers, and playgrounds.

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Isaiah Thompson