On an ever-shrinking patch of sand at the underbelly of the Julia Tuttle Causeway, tents and shacks are filling with those who have raped, touched and fondled. A colony of convicts who can do little more than create a community of their own.
There are 66 here now -- three times as many sex offenders as just a year ago.
''People call this place a camp, like it's pretty and fun,'' said Osvaldo Castillo, 29, who was convicted of molesting a 6-year-old boy. ``It's not fun at all. We are living like animals and trying to make the best of it.''
There have been breakdowns, suicide attempts, heart attacks. All set to the backdrop of gentle Biscayne Bay and the evolving Miami skyline, a luxury teasing them as much as the address posted for them in the state registry: ``Transient.''
The 65 men and one woman living here are anything but transient. They are replacing tents with wooden structures. A solitary weight bench is now a bench among benches. They've added a fridge, a sofa, a football.
When morning arrives, men embrace their wives -- some of whom arrive by car overnight -- and begin the day. The men must be back at night or face being sent to prison for violating parole.
OUTCASTS, BY LAW
In 2005, the Miami-Dade County Commission became one of many Florida cities to pass an ordinance turning sex offenders and predators into outcasts. They barred them from living within 2,500 feet of places children congregate. Deputy County Manager Pete Hernandez told commissioners there would be no developed place left for the offenders to live -- except wealthy Pinecrest. There were a few other choices: squat at the airport, camp in the Everglades or congregate under the Julia Tuttle Causeway bridge linking Miami Beach to the mainland.
Or they could leave Miami-Dade. Except that Palm Beach County and, just this month, Broward, passed similar ordinances.
With so few options, sex offenders began registering addresses under the bridge -- with the knowledge of their probation officers.
About seven were there three years ago, but the number kept growing. Challenges to the living restrictions by civil rights lawyers have failed thus far, and so life on the sand under the bridge took on a permanence.
''Now, we gotta be our own city,'' said Juan Carlos Martin, convicted of exposing himself to a 15-year-old girl. ``Every attempt we've made to fight this has failed, so we have to make this work.''
DAY IN AND DAY OUT
A city must have social mores: Most residents must be home by 10 p.m. They have to carry GPS tracking devices, and missing curfew could mean a trip back to jail. The place usually goes quiet by 1 a.m so people can sleep. No one can leave until 6 a.m. During the day, people are free to come and go.
Once a week or so, everyone gives Patrick Wiese, convicted of molesting a 9-year-old girl, two dollars to help pay for gasoline for the generator. In return, the bigger guys built the scrawny Wiese his own wooden shanty.
Wiese's shanty features a lofted twin bed, a DVD player and a 13-inch television. Sometimes, he and Martin gather for Family Guy.
Outside, Hector Alvarez and Roberto Garcia fish on a dock they've built themselves. Each day, for the past five months, they've hopped into their gray van and scoured the streets looking for wood.
Alvarez's wooden duplex has three hot plates, a TV and a shower (consisting of a plastic jug they fill with water from the bay, heat up and pour over themselves). One day, they dream of finding enough pipes to install indoor plumbing.
Family bought Alvarez a small red boat for fishing. It stands on the front porch facing the bay.
''My granddaughter thinks I'm a monster,'' said Alvarez, who pleaded guilty to exposing his genitals to his friend's children.
''I have nothing to live for,'' said Garcia, who pleaded guilty to inappropriately kissing a 10-year-old girl.
The future looks much like today and yesterday. There is no public clock, so 10 minutes can seem like an hour. Most residents work odd jobs or around the house for their families. Few employers want to risk hiring them.
''Yes, we drink to ease the pain,'' said Martin, holding a 40-ounce Miller High Life. There are three long, thin scars on his left arm from his suicide attempt. Above that is tattooed the word ''Outlaw.'' The right arm is filled with hearts, a bow and arrow with the name of his mom.
''But if we are monsters, how could we [make] this?'' he asked, pointing to the wooden structures being built. ``Now there is little for us to do for but swim, fish and fight.''
THE ONE AND ONLY
Voncel Johnson prefers spades. She plays whenever her favorite relative, Auntie Sophie, comes to visit her from Brownsville. It helps to create a semblance of normalcy on this patch, where Johnson is truly an island.
In March, Johnson became the only female resident of the colony of sex offenders.
She says she grew up watching family and friends be raped. Her boyfriend forced her into having sex with his friends at once, she says. She distrusted men, which is why she found love in a woman's embrace.
She pleaded guilty to exposing herself to a girlfriend's children while playing strip poker. The charge, she said, came after they broke up.
The day she got out of jail, she said, her probation officer gave her two options: Move here, or go back behind bars.
The first day she arrived, she said she broke into fits of tears.
As she wept, another woman approached her. It was a woman who, many nights, sleeps next to her husband inside a Camry. She promised to look out for her, and that everything would be OK.
One of the neighbors offered his camper. She stayed there, but eventually chose to live in a tent. She didn't feel like owing anyone anything. Still, she uses its bathroom so she doesn't have to go to the outhouse. Not a place for a lady.
''They treat me like I'm their sister,'' Johnson said. ``The guys, they know not to touch me because they don't want to go to jail. And they know I'm not looking for a boyfriend. Here, I've learned that not all men are bad.''
Her GPS monitoring device beeps. ''Stand outside,'' it commands.
''Outside?!'' she laughs. ``I am outside.''
HOPE RUNS THIN
They used to hope they'd get more secure housing. The American Civil Liberties Union and the public defenders say they're still working on it. Social services have been out at least a dozen times in the past month -- but have only been able to find housing for one person.
''All these people have stopped by saying they want to help,'' Martin said. 'They come and say, `Oh, this is horrible.' Three months later, you still never hear from them. No one wants to help a sex offender. They think we're all baby bangers.''
One night, about 9 p.m., a pastor walks around the community. His name is Vincent Spann, and he runs a boot camp for the homeless and addicted in Liberty City.
Spann tells Martin he has found a warehouse at the edge of the city of Miami that can hold 50 people -- and is lobbying the county for $230,000 to transform the facility into a haven for the offenders. A local reporter follows him with a camera, which Spann uses as an opportunity for a taped interview.
Martin puts his hands behind his back and stands with his legs shoulder length apart as Spann asks him questions.
``How long you've been here?''
``What's the oldest person who's lived here?''
``The oldest person is 83 years old, sir.''
''Well, I want to help you,'' Spann tells him. ``I could see a man going crazy here.
``This reminds me of in the Bible, when people had leprosy . . .''
''You've done your time and should be integrated into society,'' he says to no one in particular.
About 15 minutes later, Spann and his entourage walk back to his Expedition -- which is curiously still full of women and children.
Martin says he hasn't heard from Spann since.
''Just like all the others,'' Martin said.
TEMPTATION TO FLEE
The State Department of Corrections sees no benefits to concentrating offenders under the bridge, says its spokeswoman Jo Ellyn Rackleff. As of mid-April, the department was supervising 43 of the 66 people there.
So far, they've lost track of eight who have run away. They still can't find three of them.
A large muscular man who only goes by the moniker ''Baldhead'' has seen it happen: People became so fed up at the squalid conditions, they allowed their tracking device to run out and then ran away. He says he might do it, too.
It's only a matter of time before something terrible happens, Baldhead said. Last month, as he was walking to the mainland, someone threw a bottle at him and yelled ``f---ing child molester!''
''I'm no child molester,'' he says, emphasizing he was hardly older than his victim.
Under the bridge, there is a hierarchy of shame. Those who have raped or fondled teenagers look down on those who have touched children. Those who have touched little girls are disgusted at those who might have touched boys. At least one of the offenders is openly gay, and he sleeps in his truck in a grassy area away from the campers and doesn't want to talk about his life.
Baldhead tries not to get involved in the drama of the community. In January, one member was arrested and charged with murder. In March, another was charged with fondling a 7-year-old at a friend's home.
Right now, Baldhead spends his time inside his tent -- a carpeted one -- reading a science fantasy novel, The Winds of Fate.
A JUDGE'S HARD ADVICE
The winds ruffled Angel Blanco's tent the morning he prepared for the judge. He shaved using a flashlight, wiggled into a green T-shirt and jeans, slipped on a dirty pair of road gloves. Then he slid out of his camper and into his wheelchair.
He rolled himself out of the camp, along the dirt path to the cars whizzing past on the morning commute. The journey took him an hour.
His wife, he said, was set to pick him up so he could reason with the judge that the place was unsuitable for a disabled man.
When he returns, he reports that the judge told him to file a lawsuit. So Blanco began raising money. He spent the rest of the day moving to nearby convenience stores and asking for bottled water. He resold them in the middle of Flagler Avenue near the courthouse.
''I don't have the money for a lawyer,'' he said. ``I guess I will be here for a while.''
At the edge of the rocks, four children are playing near the water.
They are gone by 10 p.m., the hour everyone needs to return.
AT DAY'S END
Blanco is wheeling around asking for cigarettes. Johnson is on a bench talking to Auntie Sophie about the next time they can play spades.
Castillo is talking to the man who owns the most elaborate shack. It's painted turquoise on the outside. Inside are a red sofa and love seats. He even installed tiles on the floor.
But there's not much time to talk. Along the embankment, three men are starting the nightly dominoes game. And they need a fourth.
The cars' roaring from above echoes in the ear drums of the residents below. The game ends. Doors close, tents zip up, lamps turn off and the place gives way to darkness. But the sound always continues. The next morning, so does life.
Tags: sex, sexual, offender, issues, sex offender, sexual offender, julia tuttle causeway, homeless, florida
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