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Page last updated at 19:35 GMT, Sunday, 21 June 2009 20:35 UK

Miami's tent city for sex offenders

A Miami law is forcing many of the city's sex offenders to sleep rough under a bridge, reports Emilio San Pedro for the BBC's Americana programme.

Tents set up by released sex offenders under a road bridge in Miami
As many as 70 released sex offenders live in the camp

The area under the Julia Tuttle Causeway in downtown Miami has in recent years become the unlikely home for a growing community of about 70 convicted sex offenders.

They have ended up living in a makeshift tent city under one of the causeway's bridges because of a local law which prohibits those who have sexually abused minors from living within 2,500 ft (760m) of anywhere where children congregate, such as schools, libraries and parks.

After the local laws were enacted, Florida's correctional authorities found there was virtually nowhere else for these people to live and began dropping them off at the bridge.

Some of them have even been issued with driving licences with the bridge listed as their home address.

'Trash mounting'

"Welcome to American justice," said Dr Pedro Jose Greer, the Dean of Florida International University's Department of Humanities, Health and Society, as he met me under the bridge to discuss the squalid conditions at the camp.

"We have people living together with mental and physical illnesses in an environment where people can't possibly sleep because of the cars going by overhead - where you can smell the urine and see the trash mounting all around us."

Dr Pedro Greer
This is the stupidest damn law I have ever seen and it's purely mandated by revenge without any consideration for the well-being of these people
Dr Pedro Greer
Campaigner

Dr Greer has for decades been a leading advocate in Miami for homeless people and their right to receive adequate medical and social services.

He told me that he has become increasingly angry over the last few years at the existence of this camp and the lack of an alternative way to reintegrate these convicted sex offenders into society.

"What we're doing is we're saying 'let's take the people that we most despise, that did some of the most egregious things in society and let them all get together and not supervise them and let them wander around the community'," he tells me with a clear sense of frustration in his voice.

"This is the stupidest damn law I have ever seen and it's purely mandated by revenge without any consideration for the well-being of these people - who deserve better despite the severity of their crimes," he says.

No money

As we walk around the camp, with its tents and makeshift huts, lack of running water, electricity or any form of sewage, I meet Isaias, a 35-year-old Latino and former US Marine, who has been living at the camp for over two years.

He tells me how the state authorities simply drop offenders like him under the bridge and - as he puts it - let them fend for themselves.

"They don't give us no water, no food, no portable toilets, no money - nothing," he tells me.

Julio
I've only been here five days but I can't believe these criminal conditions we live in
Julio

Isaias - who served five years in prison for having sexual relations with a 16-year-old girl and is now out on parole - says that all that he and many of his neighbours under the bridge want is to be able to attempt to lead a normal life and move beyond their criminal past.

"I can't live with my wife and my daughter. I would like to have a normal life and be able to become a productive member of society again, but society is not giving us that chance," he tells me.

I then ask him if - as a father himself - if he can understand why society harbours such anger for people who have committed these sorts of crimes.

"I would understand it - yes - as a father but at the same time I cannot expect that a person who committed this kind of crime against my own child should then come out of jail and be forced to live like an animal - as we're doing here," he says.

A few metres away I meet Julio - a 62-year-old Cuban immigrant, who served 10 years in prison for abusing a 12-year-old girl. He is a recent arrival at the camp and is finding it very difficult to adjust.

"The conditions here are terrible. I've only been here five days but I can't believe these criminal conditions we live in. I have absolutely nothing and no-one to give me any form of assistance at all. I wonder if I'll ever get out of here," he concludes.

Too sensitive

The problem for people like Julio is that the serious nature of the crimes they committed makes it very difficult for them to get much sympathy from the local community or from local politicians - who for the most part have found the issue too sensitive and downright controversial to become involved.

However, earlier this month, one City of Miami commissioner, Marc Sarnoff, did just that.

With the backing of the city government, he wrote a letter to the state governor, Charlie Crist, asking him to shut the camp down.

He based that request on the fact that there is a small island that serves as a weekend park for boaters and their children that lies within the existing local boundaries.

I'm not here to support or endorse anything with regard to sexual offenders. However, they are living in squalor
Marc Sarnoff
City Commissioner

I met Mr Sarnoff on a sunny morning at a local park, where some boys were playing baseball with their coach.

He told me that his top priority remained protecting these children from sex offenders like the ones who lived at the camp.

"Let me be absolutely clear. I'm not here to support or endorse anything with regard to sexual offenders. They are my least bit of concern," he tells me.

"However, they are living in squalor. I don't think human beings will stay in that condition. They're going to start leaving and what we thought was a good law of 2,500 ft to keep them away from our children will eventually push them back into the population."

Mr Sarnoff hopes that the letter to Governor Crist will force the state either to find some alternative place to house the sex offenders or force some form of legal action that will get the state's courts, which are not beholden to the desires of the electorate, involved.

For the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and others like Dr Greer - who believe the offenders have already served their time in prison and deserve the right to attempt to get on with their lives - the camp's existence and the desperate conditions there serve as a troubling reflection of the values of modern-day Miami.

"The question is - have we become a society that doesn't let you die but lets you suffer? Do we just say we're living in the Middle Ages - an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth?" Dr Greer told me after we had finished touring the camp.

"I think we've gone beyond that."

This article is an adaptation of a feature that was originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Americana programme. Americana is broadcast at 1915 BST every Sunday on BBC Radio 4 FM.



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