Media credit/Danny Hammontree via Flickr

Media credit/Danny Hammontree via Flickr

MIAMI — The Julia Tuttle Causeway, named for the founder of the city of Miami in 1896, is one the three bridges that connects Miami Beach to the main land. A beautiful scenic drive, it offers unobstructed, panoramic views of the dark blue Atlantic waters. The causeway is one of the two main routes that tourists take to and from the Miami Airport to South Beach. At the eastern end of the causeway, visitors and residents alike are greeted by an Art Deco era sign proclaiming “Welcome to Miami Beach” — a perfect introduction for both locals who are returning home and tourists who are coming in for the first time.

Along this particular stretch of road, it’s possible to see not only houses with unapologetic displays of wealth — huge mansions with enormous boats docked behind them — but also grim realities: clusters of colorful tents located only feet away from the rugged waters break. The contrast in the living situation of those two groups could not be clearer.

At first glance, these tents appear to be a campground for families: a campground, it is, but for families, it’s definitely not. The inhabitants of these tents are sex offenders, forced to live under the bridge ever since 2006. When a law was passed by the City of Miami, forbidding any sex offender and predators who has served time to live anywhere within a 2,500 foot radius of any establishment that children congregate, i.e. schools and parks.

In a crowded, cramped area such as Miami Beach, places which satisfy those requirements are few and far between, resulting in ‘Tent City,’ as the area has come to be called — the only solution as to where these unwanted individuals can legally live.

In the four years since the law was approved, the number of sex offenders facing the problem of where to live legally has only increased. This small community of tents that has sprung up under the shadow of the Julia Tuttle Causeway has multiplied to the point that the area resembles a small town with faulty generators, rudimentary plumbing, and dogs and cats kept as pets by the residents. Everyone seems to have an opinion as to this sad and tragic situation, but no one seems to have a permanent and acceptable solution.

Clearly, the nature of the convicts’ crimes makes the issue a sensitive one. Some Miamians are of the opinion that this is what the sex offenders deserve (they have to live miserable lives to pay for their crimes) while others have a different view, that putting them there is inhumane, they have been punished enough and it is time that they be integrated back into society. The criminals may not be sympathetic figures, but casting them to the side of the road, living in tents under a bridge, is also not a solution. It’s only a matter of time before this band-aid fix leads to an infection. The authorities are fully aware what is going on in ‘Tent City’ but, as there is no other option, they tolerate it.

It was Florida’s correctional authorities that put the offenders there in the first place. After it was discovered that there was no other option for registered sex offenders who claim Miami Dade County as their home to live legally, given the 2,500-foot radius clause,  officials began assigning released inmates to the base of the bridge.

Housing criminals guilty of similar crimes amongst each other in a kind of ‘leper colony,’ some say, will only create a hostile and dangerous environment, one that will make crime amongst themselves and towards visitors more likely. The law is one that forces individuals with mental illnesses to live together, unsupervised, in the most unsanitary and precarious condition. There must be a better way of reintegrating sex offenders back into society other then having them live in an environment that surely will hasten the deterioration of their mental health.

Not only are registered sex offenders and predators living amongst themselves, but now homeless drug addicts have allegedly sought refuge in this legal campground.

Now, a new bill is about to be presented to Florida Governor Charlie Crist that would make life for sex offenders and predators more difficult. The bill, intended to create a ‘circle of safety’ for children, would forbid those kinds of individuals from loitering within 300 feet of places where children naturally congregate: parks, schools and playgrounds, etc. The bill states that any convicted sex offender who is caught breaking that law would be charged with a first degree misdemeanor, in addition to spending up to a year in jail. A separate part of the bill would forbid sex offenders and predators from wearing costumes to attract children, such as dressing like Santa Claus.

Back to Tent City:

Tent cities are temporary housing facilities, often set up by homeless people or protestors informally, or officially by state governments or military organizations to house refugees, evacuees or soldiers. An example of this would be the tent cities that formed after natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina or the earthquake in Haiti. But even Wikipedia states that ‘for sanitary reasons, military tent cities place toilet, shower and laundry facilities at least 50 feet from living quarters.’

Miami’s tent city lacks all of the above. Perhaps that is the case because placing facilities 50 feet away from the tents would violate the terms of their probation. Miami’s ‘Tent City’ also violates numerous fire codes. Under normal conditions, tents are set up in groups of 1o or so, as a precaution to prevent the rapid spread of fire.

The constant noise of traffic flying by; unpredictable, sudden and harsh afternoon showers; extreme heat; intolerable humidity; and unsanitary conditions, all those make Tent City a difficult, if not impossible, environment in which to live. This presumably would make released inmates more prone to breaking the conditions of their probation since it would throw them back into prison — a place that looks like the Four Seasons Hotel compared to Tent City. In prison, housing is guaranteed, along with electricity, beds and meals.

There has been ample media coverage of Tent City, and rightly so, since the day it was founded. Countless images of spray painted signs of ‘We R not monsters,’ among other statements, have become a blemish on the Julia Tuttle Causeway’s otherwise picture perfect, camera ready face. The inhabitants, according to media reports, range from teens who recently turned 18 who had consensual relations with younger teens all the way up to the extreme violent predators, rapist, and child molesters. But everyone there bears the scarlet letter of sex offender.

At any given time, Tent City houses between 60 and 70 sex offenders and predators, but it’s not uncommon for the number to peak to almost 200. Some fear ‘Tent City’ will, in time, become a breeding ground for its inhabitants, a volatile situation that will eventually cause turmoil amongst their own community. The individuals there are competing for scarce resources, including food, water and space. Other concerns are that the living conditions there are completely unsanitary, with trash thrown aside and left to decay (not unlike the inhabitants themselves). Or worse, that these sex offenders will eventually leave city officials no other choice but to force them back into the general population.

Amazingly enough, no one from the City of Miami seems in any hurry to do much about this controversial situation, since some of the sex offenders have the address of ‘Under Julia Tuttle Causeway’ as their permanent residence on their government issued drivers’ licenses. Mail is delivered to them there, at their ‘home.’

A significant impediment for politicians concerning the situation of Tent City is the fear and apprehension of tackling such a sensitive and overwhelmingly controversial topic. Whatever a politician may decide as to the solution to ‘Tent City’, well, passions regarding it are such that it has the potential to sway voters at election time.

Recently, officials have made feeble attempts to try and shut down Tent City. These attempts generally came after news of the locale being plagued by a series of predicable health and sanitation problems. But, as with a majority of laws that have been passed, those usually are implemented at a painfully slow place.

In mid-January, Miami Dade County Commission passed a new law stating that sex offenders find residency other than in Tent City. The Code Enforcement Department — the same department that fines residents of Miami Beach for noise infractions, parking violations, illegal construction and the like — recently put up warning signs at the makeshift camp, threatening evacuation if tenants fail to clean up their trash, and tear down illegally built ‘homes’. But as of March, the tents still remained.

A lawsuit filed by the City of Miami and American Civil Liberties Union concerning Tent City could eventually determine its fate. The case could either lead the camp to being either 100 percent legal, or close it for good. As of April 2010, Tent City was declared to be illegal. A new law states that “sex offenders are still prohibited from to live at least 2,500 feet away from schools and parks, but now they are eligible to find residency at least 1,000 feet from other places kids are at: such as day care centers.” Naturally, this ruling was met with mixed reactions. Jose Smith, Miami Beach’s City Attorney, expressed his disappointment with the passing of this law and stated that this only ‘watered down’ the strict rules that were once enforced.

Recently, officials from the City of Miami Dade County’s Homeless Trust placed all homeless sex offenders in more permanent housing. They decided to close down Tent City and move the residents to a motel, courtesy of taxpayers, along with footing the bill for signing leases up to six months. But that idea didn’t work out. Other guests of that establishment complained at having such unsavory people staying nearby. The manager evicted them, with the result that, within days, some sex offenders now roam the streets freely. Any attempt to go back to their former living quarters would result in immediate arrested on the grounds of ‘trespassing.’

As of late April, all signs of Tent City had vanished — that is, with the exception of its inhabitants, who are now scattered around Miami.

About The Author

Gabriella von Rosen is a Blast staff writer

One Response

  1. The One

    — Miami does NOT have a pristine image. It has been seen for years as a place for drug lords and high crime; oh, and let us not forget “Thug U,” aka, Miami University, most famously known for a brawl with another college over a football game. Bookville (aka the JTC camp) was just another black eye on the city of Miami. After watching the JTC situation from beginning to end, I am convinced that Florida is the most messed up state in the union. It has won TWO Shiitake Awards in a row by considerable margins and looks to three-peat. It must be all that swamp gas from the everglades mixed with too much sun and mercury-laden fish.


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