Sex Offenders Live in Village Under Miami Bridge

Strict Miami laws leave few affordable housing options for sex offenders.

September 3, 2009, 4:39 PM

MIAMI, Sept. 3, 2009— -- In sunny Miami, many condos might not be worth a million dollars anymore, but the views still are. Zip across the causeways that connect the mainland to Miami Beach and it's as if you're leaving your troubles behind.

That is, unless you happen to be cruising along the Julia Tuttle Causeway and you slow down enough to look at the side of the road, where a tent community has formed along the water's edge.

No, it's not an adventurous form of urban camping or a recession-fueled shantytown. Instead, there is a distinctly permanent feeling to this scruffy encampment. And it's clear many of its residents don't want anything to do with inquisitive reporters.

That's because these residents are pariahs. They are sex offenders, a makeshift colony of outcasts who have set up camp under this overpass only as a last resort. When we visited there were 71 men living under and around the bridge.

One of the few men here willing to talk is Homer Barkley, 43, whose seemingly harmless appearance is at odds with the fact that he is a convicted sex offender: In 1992, he was sent to prison for 10 years for the attempted sexual assault of a 10-year-old girl.

Barkley is no fan of his waterfront home.

"It's not a million-dollar view to me," he said. "It's a shame on Miami."

Barkley arrived at the causeway after his release from prison in January 2008.

"When I got to the probation officer, he also told me I had to live under the Julia Tuttle Causeway. He also told me that I had to go to the drivers license place to put it on my driver's license," Barkley said, offering as proof his state ID with the bridge listed as his official residence.

"As if this is a residence. This is not my home address," he said. "My home is in Liberty City [a Miami neighborhood.] But I can't live there based on the ordinance."

Under the bridge, you hear a lot of talk about "the ordinance."

That's a reference to the residency restrictions Miami Dade County implemented in 2005, barring registered sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of schools. On top of that, state law creates a 1,000-foot buffer around schools, parks and playgrounds, and for offenders on parole, school bus stops.

There are also 24 cities within the county that have their own residency restrictions for sex offenders that often overlap the state and county rules.

Sex Offenders Live Without Walls, Running Water or Electricity

In a densely-populated area like Miami Dade County, that doesn't leave too many options. As a result of the ordinances, much of the county is now covered by overlapping circles of no-go zones. About all that's left are some million-dollar neighborhoods, industrial parks and the Julia Tuttle Causeway.

Needless to say, the causeway has little to recommend it as a home, other than a waterfront view.

First, there's the noise.

"It's like bumblebees. Bumblebees and flies in your head," Barkley said as he points to the bridge over his head with the incessant of cars and trucks zipping to and from Miami Beach.

Even worse is the stench, a suffocating cocktail of sewage, urine and trash. There is no sanitation or running water here, and flies buzz over piles of accumulating garbage.

Some residents are required to wear electronic ankle bracelets at all times to monitor their whereabouts, and must return to the causeway every night. Any violation could send them back to jail. To keep their monitors charged the residents have brought in generators.

"When I got to the probation officer, they put this box on my ankle," said Barkley pointing to the black bracelet affixed to his ankle and the monitoring box he must wear whenever he leaves the bridge. "This box is like a tracking device. So they tell me that I have to be here from 6 o'clock p.m. to 7 o'clock in the morning."

Like many of the offenders, Barkley said he sees little difference between his current situation and his previous incarceration.

"I went to prison for all those years, and I'm still here. All I want is my life back. I deserve a second chance at life," he said. "People don't have a heart. They don't have a conscience."

Ron Book is a man who believes he has a heart and a conscience. The multimillionaire Florida lobbyist is the architect of Miami-Dade's harsh sexual predator laws. For Book, this has been a personal crusade.

Eight years ago, he learned that the nanny he and his wife had hired to care for their children was physically and sexually abusing their daughter. The nanny went to jail, and Book went to work pushing Florida's politicians to make pariahs of all sexual offenders.

It worked.

And while he acknowledges the problems the laws have created, he stands by them.

"I personally believe that residency restrictions have value and importance," he said. "Nobody said that someone exiting the prison system after committing a sexually deviant act on a child has a right to dictate where they live."

'I Sleep Very Comfortably at Night Knowing That We Have Made Our Community Safer,' Says Man Behind the Law

For Book, it is a personal crusade.

"I have a different perspective than many people," he said, tearing up as he recounted his daughter's experience at the hands of her abuser. "I sleep very comfortably at night knowing that we have made our community safer."

Although there is no conclusive evidence that the community is safer because of the harsh laws.

Miami Dade County Commissioner Pepe Diaz sleeps well at night, too, knowing that he helped his county pass some of the toughest sexual offender laws in the country.

"At no time am I going to apologize for the law that I helped to create. That law has saved, to me, in my opinion, the innocence of a lot of children," he said.

Still, Diaz will tell you he's not proud of the camp on the causeway.

"That is not a way to live for anybody. And also, in the midst of one of our bridges that goes through our main tourist areas in Miami Beach," he said.

But he has no interest in changing the law, insisting that "there are sufficient places where these men can live legally in the county."

Diaz's assertion contradicts a study of available affordable housing for sex offenders in Miami Dade County, released this week by the American Civil Liberties Union. According to the study, in the entire county, just 15 units were available to sex offenders at a rent of less than $1,000 a month. Meanwhile, not a single unit under $750 qualified.

In an ironic twist, Ron Book -- the same man who pushed for the laws that forced predators under the bridge -- is also chairman of the Miami Dade Homeless Trust, and is in charge of finding them proper homes.

During "Nightline's" visit, Book talked to Barkley about his quest to find a more suitable home, but the housing Book was hoping for won't suit Barkley, who is stymied by that ankle bracelet, which requires him to stay 1,000 feet away from any school bus stop.

When Book asked him about his time in prison, Barkley was particularly defiant.

"OK, I was sentenced to 10 years followed by five years of probation," he said. "And my question is, 17 years later, I'm still punished."

ACLU Mounts Legal Challenge

Book said he knows some people think his two roles -- the man who helped create the village under the bridge, and the man given the job of solving the problem -- are irreconcilable.

"I wear these two hats," Book said. "I wear this hat advocating for laws that I believe protect children. I wear this hat, solver of homeless problems in our community."

With legal pressure mounting, the makeshift community may not be around much longer. The ACLU has filed a motion in circuit court asking that the local ordinances be invalidated and just the state 1,000-foot law be allowed to stand.

But Book and Diaz, his partner on the county commission, said they believe the ordinance should stand.

"Look, I've not been bashful about my feelings about people who commit offenses against children," Book said. "I have referred to them as monsters. Everyone under the bridge knows that."

Barkley said he, like his fellow causeway residents, has done his time and is being punished excessively.

"I am not a monster. I'm a human being," Barkley said. "I got family like you got family. ... I don't deserve this. Regardless of what a person did, everyone deserves a second chance at life. If you felt like these guys did something so gross, then you should have sentenced them to life. You don't just cast them out. It's just not right."

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