Florida lawmakers are out to dissipate a community of sex offenders living under a bridge. Their abodes boast a makeshift gym, kitchen, living room and numerous pets.
These men convicted for various sex crimes have lived under the Julia Tuttle Causeway for more than a year. They say they cannot leave this place due to shortage of money and strict local ordinances which make it nearly impossible for them to land a job or move out.
"We're urging them to find a residence. We want them to be able to reintegrate into society," says Gretl Plessinger, a spokeswoman for the Florida Corrections Department. "We are hopeful that if we push them, they will be able to find a residence that's better."
Since the state first asked the 19 registered Tuttle dwellers last week to leave, five of the men have found homes. A sixth has gone missing.
Plessinger gives that probation officers gave the men lists of possible locations to look for housing. The offenders were initially given 72 hours to find housing, but Plessinger says this was just to motivate the men to get started.
Correction officials now count fewer than 50 homeless sex offenders statewide. About nine have lived under the Oakland Park Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale until authorities abruptly evicted them last month, an incident which Plessinger said prompted the wider demand for relocation.
"We're trying to be proactive, give the offenders time to find a place," she gives.
Three of those evicted from beneath the Oakland Park bridge are now camping out in the Everglades, say sources.
Carlene Sawyer, president of the Greater Miami chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, called the under-bridge housing a "cruel and unusual punishment" which gives the community a "false sense of security."
Says Democratic State Rep. Jack Seiler: "There has to be some place in a greater metropolitan area where these individuals can reside and we can monitor them." He warns, "If we push them all underground or out of areas where they can be monitored, that is not in the best interest of public safety."
Meanwhile, on pillars supporting the bridge, and on the slope, residents have spray-painted their thoughts: "We 'R' Not Monsters." "They Treat Animals Better!!!" "Why?"
One such victim is Juan Carlos Martin, a 29-year-old sex offender. He is accused of lewd or lascivious exhibition to a victim under the age of 16 — a crime he says he didn't commit. Martin says it is impossible for him to leave the bridge. He has been rejected from 15 jobs because of his record and cannot find a place he can afford that is in compliance with the law.
"What the law's doing to us is totally wrong," says Martin, who has lived here about six months. "Society will see that we aren't animals."