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As Deadline Approaches for Homeless Ex-Offenders in Florida, County Threatens to Jail Them

A few miles from Miami International Airport, outside of Hialeah, sits a tent camp of about 280 homeless people. There’s no electricity or running water and no bathrooms. News reports describe the stench of human waste and garbage, tents that flood when it rains, and flies, mosquitoes, and rats infesting the area. “Animals live better than this,” one resident […]

A homeless encampment in Pinellas County, FloridaTom Stovall / Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

A few miles from Miami International Airport, outside of Hialeah, sits a tent camp of about 280 homeless people. There’s no electricity or running water and no bathrooms. News reports describe the stench of human waste and garbage, tents that flood when it rains, and flies, mosquitoes, and rats infesting the area. “Animals live better than this,” one resident told a reporter.

He and the others there are on the state sex offender registry. Miami-Dade County laws make it almost impossible for them to find places to live and bar homeless shelters from taking them in. For many registrants, the encampment has been a last resort, but in January, county leaders passed a new rule that makes them subject to arrest if they don’t find housing by May 7.

The person most responsible for the camp’s existence may be state lobbyist Ron Book. In 1996, he and his wife hired Waldina Flores as a nanny for their three children in their home outside Fort Lauderdale. Over the course of six years, Flores sexually and physically abused their oldest child, Lauren. Lauren Book eventually told a psychiatrist, and Flores was arrested and ultimately sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Lauren Book went on to found a nonprofit that promotes sexual abuse prevention, of which Ron Book is the chair; Lauren is now a Florida state senator. But Ron Book also lobbied for new laws. In 2005, he helped convince Miami Beach to pass an ordinance that bans people on sex offender registries from living within 2,500 feet of a school, a rule later adopted countywide. State legislators earlier had passed a law barring registrants from living within 1,000 feet of day care centers, parks, playgrounds, and schools.

In combination, those policies left only tiny patches where Miami-Dade registrants could live. By 2007, news reports were describing people with sex-crime records living under the Julia Tuttle Causeway, some literally dropped off there by their probation officers. In 2010, a spate of negative news stories forced the county to shut down that encampment.

Book has been at the center of this debate for years, as both an advocate for the restrictions and as chair of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, the lead body for implementing county plans for solving homelessness. After the Julia Tuttle camp closure, he used the proceeds of local food and beverage taxes to find short-term housing in a trailer park and hotels for some of the homeless people. But when that money ran out and the the trailer park was found to be too close to a school, the registrants were out on the streets again. In March 2014, the Miami New Times reported that 57 men were living at the Hialeah encampment, and its numbers have since more than quadrupled.

A 2013 study in the journal Criminal Justice Policy Review found that only 4 percent of Miami-Dade county residences were outside a ban zone, and only 1 percent of legal residences rented for $1,250 a month or less. Registrants in the county are more than 50 times as likely as those in the general population to be homeless, the researchers found. Many of the people living in the encampment have family members who would take them in, but their homes are off-limits, says Jeanne Baker, legal panel chair of the ACLU’s greater Miami chapter.

Take Jeff*, convicted in 2004 of viewing child pornography. (He doesn’t want his real name used for fear of jeopardizing his housing and job situations, and putting himself at risk of vigilante attacks.) “I remember looking at stuff on the internet for reasons that I can’t justify,” he told The Appeal. “I didn’t realize that you can go to jail for looking at something on the internet. I should have known better.”

He spent three years in federal prison and got out in 2007. He wanted to return to the house he and his wife owned in Miami-Dade, he said. But his release plan was denied because the 2005 law — passed after his conviction — put it in a no-go zone. Jeff’s parents would have been happy to house him too, but their home was also off-limits.

Jeff said he looked for months. The few places that were outside a residency zone turned him down once they found out he was on the registry. Finally, an old college friend who lived in a remote area rented him a room. That worked for five years until the friend had enough of roommate living. After another futile search, Jeff left for a nearby county in 2012.

“I know so many [registrants] who are homeless,” he said. “I had plenty of money and strong family support. If not for that, I’d likely be out there with them.”

Ironically, registrants like Jeff who are looking for housing depend on Book for help, given his role as the Trust’s chair. When unflattering stories on the Hialeah encampment emerged last summer, Book and other officials promised to shut it down by offering residents other housing. But those who can’t or won’t move will be subject to arrest.

It’s already illegal to camp overnight on county property. Violators can be arrested, though police have to offer them the chance to go to a shelter. Since area shelters don’t take registrants, however, they had been allowed to stay in the encampment. But in January, in an effort to abolish the encampment, the county commissioners eliminated the requirement to offer registrants shelter, so those in the encampment have until the May 7 deadline to relocate or face arrest. In the interim, the county has promised to bring in portable toilets, handwashing stations, and garbage cans to partially remediate conditions. (The county commissioner who drafted the rule didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment on the new policy, nor did the county mayor’s office. A spokesperson for the county police director declined an interview request.)

Book says the people in the encampment need to take more initiative to find housing. Trust staff have visited the encampment to tell them about available housing assistance, he said. “We’ve told folks repeatedly, ‘You gotta jump on it — our staff is available to respond to you,’” he told The Appeal. “There are places they can live.”

But the “Housing Search Tool for Homeless Sex Offenders” on the Trust’s website contradicts that claim. The tool lets registrants plug in an address to check whether it’s in a banned zone. Of 20 randomly selected apartments under $1,100 selected from and entered into the search tool, none fell outside a restricted zone. ($1,100 is the cutoff for what’s considered affordable for a Miami-Dade resident with the county annual median income of about $44,000.)

Presented with those results, Book blamed the local housing market and said the state legislature needs to appropriate money to house registrants away from the population, which he said he’s advocated for.

But he rejects the most obvious fix — getting rid of the 2,500-foot residency restriction. An October 2014 National Criminal Justice Association review of available research on these types of policies notes that “there is no empirical support for the effectiveness of residence restrictions.” Their unintended consequences — “loss of housing, loss of support systems, and financial hardship … may aggravate rather than mitigate offender risk,” the researchers concluded.

Book isn’t convinced. “You’re not going to get me to ever say that residency restrictions are not appropriate,” he told The Appeal. “Just because there’s no study, no data [to show that they work], you’ve got to use some level of common sense…. And common sense tells me that I shouldn’t think it’s OK to have predators and offenders living in close proximity to schools, parks, playgrounds, daycare centers, and the like.”

But Gail Colletta, president of the Florida Action Committee, which advocates for reforming state and local sex-offense laws, says Book’s support of residency restrictions is misguided. “The situation with his daughter is very sad, but he pushes a lot of legislation that’s counterproductive to public safety,” she said. “People need to be with family, they need to have jobs, and they need to have a roof over their head.”

A glimmer of hope for activists like Colletta arrived on March 26 when a judge in neighboring Broward County dismissed a case against two registrants who had violated a similar residency ordinance in the city of Fort Lauderdale. The ACLU helped the pair fight the charges based on the U.S. and state constitutions’ ex post facto clauses: Fort Lauderdale’s ordinance was enacted in 2007 after the two plaintiffs were convicted. The ACLU has filed a similar lawsuit in federal court against Miami-Dade County that’s set to go to trial in June, says Baker. Still, the win in Fort Lauderdale is narrow — it applies only to those convicted before the city ordinance was passed.

Around the country, places that wall off large swaths of housing from those with sex-crime records continue to get the same results: people living on the street. Homeless registrants in Orlando, in a county where residency restrictions average 2,500 feet, sometimes list the local Walmart as their permanent address, according to a news report last November. In October 2014, Milwaukee passed a similar ordinance and the number of homeless registrants promptly soared from 15 to 230 in less than two years, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel analysis. In Indiana’s Boone County, a thousand-foot residency restriction led the sheriff to require six homeless registrants there to find permanent residences or pitch their tents on county jail property.

At least one Miami-Dade official seems desperate for an alternative solution as the May 7 deadline approaches. On the day the county issued it, Baker said county Deputy Mayor Maurice Kemp approached her. “Can the ACLU help with housing?” he reportedly asked. “No, I’m afraid we can’t,” she said. “We don’t do housing.”

*Not his real name.