Roughly 260 sex offenders have registered as their residence the intersection of Northwest 36th Court and 71st Street, on the edge of Hialeah and Miami. The closest house is four blocks away and the only buildings here are squat warehouses.
They start to roll in around 9:30 p.m., just in time for curfew. By the end of the night, around 50 people fill two dozen tents pitched on the ground on either side of the street.
Most people in the encampment wear evidence of their crimes on their ankles, as devices that beep when they’re out of range. Others just know the rules they must abide by. They’re living in rough conditions--no running water or toilet facilities and flooding is a regular fact of life--in order to comply with laws restricting where sex offenders can sleep at night.
“Rats live better,” said Gregory Baker, aka Claudia, who has lived at the encampment for a year and two months. He was convicted in 2009 for possessing and sending child pornography and attempting to send inappropriate material to a minor. He was told to come to this homeless encampment by his parole officer, who wrote down the address on a piece of paper.
“I was like, You have to be kidding me,' ” said Baker. “Apparently they weren’t, because every place that my dad, my sister put an address at, [my probation officer] said no.”
In 2005, Miami-Dade County prohibited offenders from living within 2,500 feet of schools, daycare centers and playground. It was a response to a similar ordinance passed in the city of Miami Beach, which effectively made it a no-go zone for anyone convicted of a sex crime.
That restriction is in place from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m. Outside of those hours, sex offenders are allowed more free rein. So some people work, go over to their family’s homes and shop during the day and sleep in the tent camp at night.
If you draw a 2,500-foot buffer around all of the institutions mentioned in the ordinance, not much of the county is left. Even less when you take out the airports and particularly unaffordable areas where home prices are in the six figures. What is left are bits of Homestead, West Kendall and a few small patches like this one.
In 2007, the Miami New Times broke the story that these restrictions had, in essence, created a sex offender village under the Julia Tuttle Bridge. Social workers sent or dropped off people when they got out of jail and the DMV was printing “Julia Tuttle Causeway” on their driver licenses. The camp was dismantled in 2010 and residents relocated to temporary housing that eventually left them in the street again.
This encampment on 71st street, tucked between warehouses next to the railroad tracks, is like the reincarnation of the Julia Tuttle Bridge camp.
And on Monday night, this is what Ron Book, the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust and county officials went out to address.
Teams of Green Shirts, as the homeless outreach workers are called, escorted by Miami-Dade police went tent to tent, handing out a letter written by Book, president of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, to the deputy mayor about wanting to find a new place for those in this area. They also handed out a blurry black and white map of all the areas in the county that are off limits.
The plan is to help the sex offenders living here to find housing that works with their living restrictions. The Homeless Trust has offered to subsidize part of the expenses through rental or housing assistance.
“The goal tonight is to inform all of the people that are living out here that this is not going to continue,” said Book. “At some point, sooner than later, we’re going to dismantle this place and close it down.”
Over the next week, they Homeless Trust will help process those living in the encampment for rental or housing assistance.
“We have made clear in the memo that they’re being handed [is] that it’s their job to go find a housing opportunity and bring it back to us,” explained Book. “They’ve got to take control of their lives and find housing opportunities.”
They are not passing out a list of available housing, confirmed Book, but he says they’re handing out information to help them go search. He says this is one of the differences in how the Homeless Trust is handling the encampment on 71st street from the one under the Julia Tuttle bridge. The Homeless Trust will not be prioritizing these sex offenders over other homeless people as they did last time.
“What they want to do is wallow in self-pity and blame everybody else for their problem and blame laws and blame this and blame that," said Book. "They want to sit around and blame other people. They can choose to do that or they can take responsibility for what happened, for the crimes they committed, understanding society and go out and take control.”
The name Book might not be familiar to those living in this homeless encampment, but it’s the name attached to the ordinance restricting sex offenders from living within 2,500 feet of places where children go - it’s called the Lauren Book Child Safety Ordinance.
Ron Book himself--who by day is one of the most powerful and influential lobbyists in Florida--drafted and pushed through this county ordinance. His efforts followed the horrible sexual abuse that his daughter suffered through as a child.
The Books' nanny of six years sexually molested Lauren starting when she was 11. Now, State Senator Lauren Book is married, mother to twins, and an advocate for those who have been sexually abused.
As chair of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, tasked with figuring out what to do with all these people in tents and tarp shacks, Ron Book was behind the 2005 law that made it more difficult for these sex offenders to find anywhere else to live.
But Book rejects the notion that he should be held personally responsible for their difficulties.
“They can blame me all they want. I’ve never shied away from my work to make our community and our state and our country safer so that what happened to my daughter, doesn’t happen to them,” said Book.
Lauren Book, the namesake of the Miami-Dade County restrictions, was out with her father and the green shirts, talking with the sex offenders living out among the warehouses.
“This is not easy to do, for me, for my dad,” said Lauren Book. She has made a point over the years to visit with and try to understand the behavior of sex offenders in an attempt to prevent what happened to her from happening to other children.
“I don’t feel badly for these individuals. There are laws that were broken. You did some terrible bad things. That does not mean that anybody should be in a desperate situation,” said Lauren Book.
When asked about how she feels to have her name attached to the legislation that is an undeniable part of the formula that has led to this homeless encampment, she said that while she is proud of her engagement with the issue, there is not an easy answer.
“The truth is this is not a black and white issue,” she said. “The minute you start to think you can broad-brush this issue you’re in a terribly bad place, so I would be lying if I wasn’t conflicted.”
And, Lauren Book adds emphatically, she and her father don’t agree about everything when it comes to this issue.
“We fight all the time, very badly. You should see dinner at our house,” she said.
But they do agree on the residency restrictions.
“Ron Book, I beg you to come out here and live one day the way that we live and this will never ever happen,” said Gregory Baker. “They will change their story so fast it will make their head spin around.”
He says if he could find an address he would be gone immediately.
“I’d be burning rubber. That’s how quick I could get out of here. If they came and told me, 'Hey, [you have] this address,' phew, you wouldn’t see me. I’d be gone. You’d see smoke,” said Baker.