MIAMI – The state is trying to dissolve a community of sex offenders living under a bridge that includes a gym, kitchen, living room and two dogs.
The men have lived under the Julia Tuttle Causeway for a year. They say limited money and strict local ordinances make it nearly impossible for them to live anywhere else. But state officials are telling them to leave.
"We're urging them to find a residence. We want them to be able to reintegrate into society," said 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."
The state first advised the 19 registered Tuttle dwellers last week that they must move. Since then, five of the men have found homes. A sixth has gone missing, a reflection of the angst over the order.
Plessinger said probation officers have given the men lists of possible locations to look for housing. The offenders were initially given 72 hours to find housing, but Plessinger said it was simply to motivate the men to get started. There is no firm deadline.
All told, corrections officials count fewer than 50 homeless sex offenders statewide. About nine lived under the Oakland Park Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale until authorities abruptly evicted them last month, an incident Plessinger said prompted the wider demand for relocation.
"We're trying to be proactive, give the offenders time to find a place," she said.
Three of those evicted from beneath the Oakland Park bridge are now camping out in the Everglades, Plessinger said.
Carlene Sawyer, president of the Greater Miami chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, called the under-bridge housing "cruel and unusual punishment" that gives the community a "false sense of security."
The situation is garnering the attention of state lawmakers. Democratic State Rep. Jack Seiler said that while restrictions to keep sex offenders away from children are good, communities are trying to "one-up" each other with tougher and tougher restrictions.
He said the state may have to adopt uniform standards.
"There has to be some place in a greater metropolitan area where these individuals can reside and we can monitor them," Seiler said. "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."
The offenders' community is like no other.
Just beneath where motorists pass, in the angled area where the bridge meets a concrete slope, there are domed tents, a cream-colored sofa beside a large generator-powered television and XBox, and stacks of canned food and drinks.
The air is tinged with sea salt, and the sound of cars passing overhead is relentless. Yet perfect Atlantic waters make it strangely serene.
At the bottom of the slope, there is a makeshift kitchen with a table, grill and jugs of water that residents fill more than a mile away. The community has a canoe for fishing, a weight bench, and a spot favored by a pit bull named Tigger and a German shepherd named Blackie.
On pillars supporting the bridge, and on the slope, residents have spray-painted their thoughts: "We 'R' Not Monsters." "They Treat Animals Better!!!" "Why?"
Juan Carlos Martin, a 29-year-old on the sex offender list for lewd or lascivious exhibition to a victim under the age of 16 -- a crime he says he didn't commit -- said it's been impossible for him to leave the bridge. He has been rejected from 15 jobs because of his record and can't find a place he can afford that's in compliance with the law.
Martin sits on his couch and sucks on a cigarette as a tiny white kitten peaks out from behind a stereo that no longer works. A gold crucifix hangs from his neck. He is off probation now, but he says he feels no freedom.
"What the law's doing to us is totally wrong," said Martin, who has lived here about six months. "Society will see that we aren't animals."