City wants sex offenders living under Miami bridge to be removed

06/03/09 Seán Kinane
WMNF Drive-Time News Wednesday | Listen to this entire show:

About seventy people live in a homeless camp underneath a Miami bridge. Many of them have been released from prison after serving time for sex offenses and have nowhere else to live because of residency restrictions. But Miami’s City Manager sent a letter this week asking Governor Charlie Crist to relocate the people who live under the Julia Tuttle Causeway.

Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, blames both the Governor and local elected officials for taking advantage of the public’s fear of where released sex offenders reside.

“And they exploited that public concern by enacting a patchwork quilt of residency requirements that exceeded the state requirements. … In many places this was in effect banishment from the community.”

Released sex offenders in Florida may not live within 1000 feet of schools, parks, and other areas where children gather. But like many other communities, Miami has increased that restriction to 2500 feet. That excludes almost the entire Miami-Dade County except for Everglades wilderness and a state-owned patch underneath the Julia Tuttle Causeway.

Ron Book is board chair of the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust and describes himself as an advocate for victims’ rights and for the 2500 foot residency restriction.

“When offenders have been leaving the prison system, the Department of Corrections, when they couldn’t find housing for these folks, have been actually assigning these folks to a residence under the Julia Tuttle Causeway. They’ve actually, in many instances, have driver licenses with “under the Julia Tuttle Causeway” as their listed address.”

Book blames the state’s Department of Corrections, who he says the Homeless Trust has been communicating with for over a year “for a better way to discharge these folks from the prison system, so that they weren’t discharging people into a state of homelessness. Frankly, we find the department’s position to be reprehensible. They have, in effect, decided they were going to just discharge people into homelessness, which is just wrong. We negotiated an agreement a year ago with a number of people in the community to discharge people from facilities and institutions – and one of them was the Department of Corrections. We made changes to our agreement; the department refused to sign it. … It is unsanitary, it is terrible, it is a blight on the community. And we have no one but the Department of Corrections to thank for this situation.”

Gretl Plessinger is a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Corrections. She says that as of Tuesday, only 41 of the people living under the bridge are sex offenders on probation under state jurisdiction.

“We’ll do anything that it takes, and if he [Book] has any ideas, we would love to know them. … The residency restrictions make it, first of all, very difficult for them to find a place to live.”

In a letter this week to Governor Charlie Crist, Miami City Manager Pete Hernandez demanded that the state relocate the people living under the bridge because of its proximity to a spoil island. The island is known as Picnic Island #4, and is less than the local limit of 2,500 feet, but more than the state limit of 1,000 feet from the encampment. WMNF attempted to speak with Hernandez, but he was not available by airtime. Miami-Dade Homeless Trust’s Ron Book says the island is considered a public park.

“The fact is the Julia Tuttle Causeway is 1200 feet from this island. The island is a park. It is designated in the City’s master plan as park.”

But the state Department of Corrections’ Gretl Plessinger disagrees with the city’s designation of the island as a park.

“That island is someplace where boaters go … it’s not considered a park.”

The ACLU of Florida’s Howard Simon says that officials have created a statewide homelessness, public health, and public safety crisis.

“Through the exploitation of this issue by local politicians and the inattention of state officials, we now have a crisis where each party is pointing the finger at the other party. … There’s plenty of blame to go around.”

Simon claims that Governor Charlie Crist, has, quote, “looked the other way” in the hopes that this issue would not get attention. Simon recommends a statewide task force to determine solutions.

“Certainly it would address creating housing for people who are ultimately going to be released from our correction system and also addressing the patchwork of laws and local ordinances that have created this crisis.”

The ACLU is “preparing to seek a solution through the courts” to address the patchwork of local ordinances, according to Simon. But he hopes that won’t be necessary if Governor Charlie Crist takes the lead in fixing the issue. The Governor’s office did not respond by air time to our request for comment.

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