The cluster of tents housing dozens of sex offenders popped up several years ago outside Hialeah, and Miami-Dade hasn't yet managed to find a way to empty it.
An eviction appeared imminent last weekend, as county officials warned residents they needed to clear out of the roadside refuge by Sunday, May 6 — even though Miami-Dade's homeless shelters won't accept them. Then came a last-minute reprieve as county attorneys faced a threatened legal challenge to an ordinance passed late last year targeting the encampment off Northwest 71st Street that's the registered address of 235 registered sex offenders.
On Monday, Legal Services filed suit against the county on behalf of four unnamed residents of the camp, saying Miami-Dade's overly strict rules on where sex offenders can live have left the plaintiffs with no choice but to camp there.
For now, the extraordinary scene — a hamlet of tarps, tents, generators, grills and trailers on the side of a busy stretch of industrial road — shows no signs of shrinking. County social workers and police have been offering rental assistance and housing help, according to a county memo, while telling residents they had until May 6 to leave. The county recently added portable restrooms and hand-washing stations, and residents facing the county's strict rules on where sex offenders can live say they have no place to go.
"I did my time. Now let me live my life," said Patrick Wiese, 56, who in 2006 was convicted of lewd conduct on a minor under the age of 12. Wiese said he has been living in a tent at the encampment for several years, and calls it unfair that he's forced into homelessness while other convicts are able to live normally. "I could murder somebody and go live next to the dang family."
The Hialeah camp added to Miami-Dade's extended saga of sex offenders living together on the streets, with advocates joining the residents in blaming the county's politically charged rules on where they can't live after serving their sentences. An encampment under a city bridge — the Julia Tuttle Causeway off Miami — drew global attention in 2009. And while that encampment was disbanded, the underlying problem remained of finding shelter for homeless sex offenders in the county.
A summary of Miami-Dade's response to what it considers an illegal camp described the area as the unofficial landing spot for offenders after they serve their sentences. "Many sexual predators and offenders arrive directly from State prisons to the encampment," read the summary.
The person who runs the county's homeless efforts is the volunteer chairman of Miami-Dade's homeless board: lobbyist Ron Book. Though he holds no formal day-to-day authority over the tax-funded agency known as the Homeless Trust, Book makes clear he makes major decisions there and directs staff. He's also a crusader for tough laws for sexual offenders. His daughter, state Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, was a victim of sexual abuse as a child and rose to political prominence from her activism on the issue. The county law regulating where sex offenders can live is named after her.
"Do I like these people?" Ron Book said while discussing the sex offenders living in the camp. "No. And they don't like me. Because I am an advocate for protecting kids. But I don't want anyone to be homeless in my community."
He pointed to the state-mandated map of convicted sexual offenders living throughout Miami-Dade, illustrating that the county's residency rules don't make it too challenging to find a residence. And Book said the Homeless Trust has been visiting the camp since last summer in an effort to find the residents homes. Rental vouchers are available, along with help traveling to family or friends willing to take them if probation rules allow it.
"They can't go to my shelters," he said. But there are other options. "We have led them to the trough," he said.
Even so, he estimated that the county is housing fewer than a dozen registered sex offenders in a system that provides some sort of shelter — be it a bed or an apartment — for more than 8,000 people. In a May 2 letter to the county, the Legal Services lawyer who filed the lawsuit said Miami-Dade was able only to place a single camp resident in housing.
"The people living in the encampment are involuntarily homeless," wrote Legal Services lawyer Jeffrey Hearne. Thanks to a 2,500-foot restriction on living near schools, "they are prohibited from living in most residential areas of the County."
On Friday, Wiese was sawing plywood to build a mini trailer he planned to put on wheels and tow with a bicycle. He said that would be his roving residence once the county forced him to vacate the camp. "I'm going wherever my legs can take me," he said.
Plagued with complaints of human waste, filth and a budding health crisis, the camp has infuriated nearby business owners.
"They feel they have no rights," Book said of the owners. "They're angry."
Book said that because of the alleged threat to public health there, Miami-Dade doesn't need the January update to the county's camping restrictions — legislation directed at the Hialeah camp — to dismantle the village. The law created an exception to the rule that police can't arrest someone for sleeping outside on county property overnight if there is no space available at a homeless shelter. The new law exempts convicted sexual offenders from that provision.
Hearne said he planned to take Miami-Dade to court over the camping law, saying it only applies to land outside county-owned buildings and not the county-owned roadside that is home to the encampment.
He said his objections prompted word from the county's legal department late last week that the Sunday deadline would be delayed. On Friday, a letter from Deputy Mayor Maurice Kemp confirmed the reprieve. Kemp said no enforcement action would begin until Thursday, allowing Miami-Dade more time to evaluate the needs of remaining residents.
"However, the temporary restrooms, handwashing stations, and garbage cans that have been provided by Miami-Dade County at the encampment may be removed prior to that date," Kemp wrote.
Hearne said there's no question the conditions are dismal at the encampment, but that Miami-Dade can't simply evict residents without any humane alternative for the next stop. He said the most sensible solution is for Miami-Dade to relax its residency requirement to the 1,000-foot limit required by Florida. Short of that, Hearne said the offenders should be allowed to continue living on the roadside, which is close to public transportation, public bathrooms and places to buy food.
Hearne's letter included a document stamped by the county police department's sex-crimes unit. It was a map of another camp site, this one off Krome Avenue at the edge of the Everglades, with the handwritten notation, "This is a good address." He said it was distributed at the Hialeah encampment as a suggested new place to live.
"It is more than a mile from the nearest bus stop," Hearne wrote. "There is no running water, electricity, or bathrooms."
Book confirmed that some tent-camp residents had migrated to the Krome site, which on Friday contained several unattended tents. He said the county put a halt to what he considered another illegal homeless village.
"Those that don't have a place to go, they can live homeless," he said. "There's no problem with that. But we're not going to let any more of these encampments happen. Those days are over with."
This post was updated to correct conflicting attribution regarding a letter that Legal Services lawyer Jeffrey Hearne wrote regarding a potential homeless encampment off of Krome Avenue, and its lack of running water and bathrooms.