Homeless advocates and county officials intend to move a group of registered sex offenders living under a bridge to private housing this week amid growing criticism - and lawsuits - over the county's ordinance that they must live at least 2,500 feet from places where children gather.
But some offenders are reluctant to move, saying that being told where to live, and with whom, is similar to the prison terms they have already served.
"I'm not in prison anymore," said Reg, a 44-year-old offender who served six years behind bars for molesting a minor. He declined to give his last name for fear he may lose his job as a cook. "I'm a taxpayer, I'm on probation and I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing. I don't want to be told to live somewhere."
He is one of about 70 registered offenders living in tents or makeshift huts near a busy bridge that connects Miami to Miami Beach. In the past three years, it's become a shantytown of men on probation who struggle to find affordable housing that doesn't violate Miami-Dade County's strict ordinances against sex offenders living too close to schools, parks and other places frequented by children.
The bulk of the felons living under the bridge - and in tents lining the side of the causeway, in full view of tourists headed to the beach - are on state probation. Department of Corrections officers have been unable to find suitable housing for them in part because of affordability and the local ordinances, and the men have been ordered to live at the bridge so they don't run afoul of the law.
This week, however, the chairman of the county's Homeless Trust said the group will move eight offenders off the property and into an apartment. It's unclear how far the apartment is from the bridge - officials won't say - but several men there said Wednesday that a location in Homestead, some 35 miles south, was under consideration.
"This is the most movement we've had in three years," said Ron Book, the trust's chairman. "But this isn't a long-term solution. The state's got to come to grips that we've got a growing population coming out of the prisons."
Book said that he and other local and state officials are looking for a bigger place to house the remaining people. Under consideration: a vacant county jail. Book said the space could be renovated so the men wouldn't feel like they were incarcerated again.
"That's unacceptable," said Reg, shaking his head.
Earlier this month, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the county, saying the ordinance should be overturned because it's more restrictive than the 1,000-foot limit set by the state. Also this month, the city of Miami sued the state, saying the makeshift camp is too close to a small island park accessible only by boat.
Many in the community are disgusted and fed up with how the issue has been handled.
"Nobody has the courage to talk about this," said Miami City Commissioner Marc Sarnoff. "They don't want to talk about sex offenders. Yet we say to our tourists as they go to the beach, look to your left, look to your right, this is where sex offenders are placed."
Sarnoff blames Gov. Charlie Crist.
"We need a uniform system," said Sarnoff. "We need some ability to place them somewhere."
County Commissioner Jose "Pepe" Diaz also blames the state, pointing out that there are some 3,000 sex offenders in Miami-Dade County, the bulk of whom have found adequate housing.
"The county ordinance didn't prevent them from finding housing," he said. "The state is creating an issue out of an issue."
State officials won't discuss it because legal action is pending but Jo Ellyn Rackleff, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections, said the agency is "really pleased" that local officials are looking for housing alternatives.
The ACLU's Howard Simon said it's great that the folks living at the bridge will soon get homes, but questions whether this will solve the overall problem.
"It's like dealing with the symptoms and not the cause," he said. "It's only a matter of time before there will be another shantytown."
Rigoberto Gonzalez, a 57-year-old who served 16 years in prison on multiple child rape and molestation charges, shrugs when asked where the state should send him. He's been living in a tent under the bridge since he was released in May, and is aided with food and water from friends. Gonzalez has no family - they are all in Cuba - and says he can't work because his green card was taken away when he went to prison.
"If the government pays for an apartment, I'll go," said Gonzalez, in Spanish. "I would prefer to work and pay for an apartment myself. All I ask is that they treat us like people, not animals."
He adds that if he were given the option to return to Cuba - a country he left in 1980 - then he would go back.
"In Cuba, there are human rights."