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Miami sex offenders limited to life under a bridge


The roar of rush hour wakes him: trucks, cars and buses thundering across the causeway above his tent. Behind the shack next to his, someone guns a generator. Spanish music blares from a boom box. Homer Barkley turns on his side, pulls the covers over his head. His mother gave him these sheets when he got out of prison, to use at his brother's house, where he planned to stay. Instead, the sheets cover an air mattress Barkley hauled down here more than a year ago, when he found out he had to live on the edge of Biscayne Bay, with 70 other people convicted of committing sex crimes against kids. Home now is a spit of sand beneath a highway overpass. It's the punishment after the punishment.

Tattered tents line the abutment below the bridge. On the wide landing near the water, bigger tents and plywood sheds hug the dirty shore. There is nowhere to escape heat or bugs or storms. No electricity, except for a communal generator plugged into a tangle of extension cords.

And though people on parole are supposed to stay out here all night, there is no toilet. They go in a pickle bucket then dump it into the bay. The closest running water is at a Shell station a half-hour's hike away.

On the underside of the bridge, someone has spray-painted reminders: "They don't want us to make it." "We R not monsters." And, simply, "Why?"

It wasn't supposed to be like this. Everyone agrees on that. The state, the city and county, the Department of Corrections and the ACLU — none of them wanted to shove these people under a bridge. Even the man who got Miami to adopt stricter laws against paroled sex offenders says he is surprised at what he has wrought.

"It's a terrible situation for everyone, for the public and all those people living out there in third-world squalor," says Ron Book.

Book, a well-known lobbyist, is a walking contradiction. As the father of a girl who was molested years ago by a nanny, he's a fierce advocate for tougher laws against sex offenders. But as the chairman of Miami's homeless trust, he's supposed to look out for the people he helped put under the bridge.

"Those people out there know how I feel about them," he says. "But I've got to put my own emotions in check and figure out how to deal with all this.

"We didn't anticipate how big this problem could get."

Here's what happened: Florida law says people on parole for crimes against kids have to live at least 1,000 feet from any school, playground or park. Book pressured Miami-Dade to more than double that buffer to 2,500 feet — almost a half-mile. And he added school bus stops to off-limit areas.

In the crowded city, those restrictions left virtually nowhere registered offenders could live.

Which explains why Homer Barkley's driver's license lists his address simply as "Julia Tuttle Causeway."

• • •

Barkley grew up in Miami, dropped out of school in ninth grade, stole a car, broke into some houses, resisted arrest. In 1992, according to a police report, he crept into the bedroom of his girlfriend's 10-year-old daughter and assaulted her anally and vaginally. He was 26.

Barkley took a plea bargain and was sentenced to 10 years for attempted sexual battery on a child. He got more time for assaulting another inmate and violating his probation.

When he got out in January 2008, his brother picked him up at prison and drove him to check in with his probation officer. Barkley announced his plans to stay with his brother.

"You have to stay at the bridge," he says the officer told him. He thought it was a halfway house.

But the officer took him across the causeway that links Miami to Miami Beach, turned around and threaded through a split in the guardrail, bumped down a dirt path. Barkley saw the shabby tents clinging to the concrete. On the gritty beach below, men were fishing for their dinner. Barkley sat on the shore, hugging his knees, watching the dark water creep closer.

"You'll never get used to it," a new neighbor told him. "But it's better than prison. Most of the time."

• • •

On this sticky summer Thursday, four months before his probation ends, Barkley yawns and unzips his front door. The stench of exhaust, fish and sweat is sickening. He sees his neighbor peeing on the shore.

"What happened last night?" calls Barkley, 44. "My fan went off and it got so damn hot in there I couldn't stand it."

"Generator ran out of gas," the guy says, adjusting his pants. It is cranking again now because somebody took up a collection and went across the bridge to get more.

Barkley nods. He picks up a plastic jug, pours water into a bucket, swirls in liquid soap and dunks a washcloth. Standing on the square of carpet outside his tent, he swabs his arms, his chest, his gray-flecked beard. He walks to the beach to brush his teeth, squats and spits into seaweed.

"Hey, you going in today?" Barkley asks his friend, Mark Wilson, who comes by to bum Pepsodent. "I got a bunch of things I got to do."

He has to find his cousin or sister, someone who will let him take a shower. He needs to talk to a psychiatrist because he has been depressed. He wants to go see this guy who just bought a foreclosed property; the guy wants Barkley to move in, with whoever else can afford $400 rent.

"You want in?" Barkley asks Wilson, 29. "You want to get out of here?"

"Ain't going to happen," Wilson says.

"Think positive," says Barkley. "This is me, not Ron Book."

For breakfast, he pulls a slice of last night's cornbread from his microwave. Then he tugs a T-shirt over his shaved head, stuffs his cell phone and his last $12 into a string backpack and straps a black box around his waist. The box sends signals to the monitor on his ankle so the cops can track his every move.

As the sun begins to bake the bay, Barkley and Wilson zip their tents, scale a steep concrete slope and trek 1.5 miles along the shoulder of the Julia Tuttle Causeway — back toward the city that banished them.

• • •

The first tent popped up more than two years ago. Since then the colony has grown to almost 80 residents. Most are sex offenders. The rest are homeless people who heard they won't get hassled at the bridge.

The sex offenders include 20-something men with gold grills on their teeth and a stooped 84-year-old who feeds feral cats; married men whose wives bed down with them in beater cars; and dads who see their kids on Sundays, at the grandparents' house; plus one woman who exposed herself to her girlfriend's children and stays in a trailer.

They are Romeos of 19 who loved underage Juliets, old men who violated young boys, young men who slept with girls who sure looked 21. Nobody talks about any of that. Out here, everyone is an outcast.

Some guys have built plywood shanties; one has a window. Some put padlocks on their tent doors. One man just stretches out on his back on the pavement.

They share food and bus tokens. Someone brought a rusty barbecue grill. Someone found a cooler. Someone plugged an orange extension cord into a coughing generator and strung it over the pilings, adding outlets for each new arrival. Most of the guys have fans and DVD players in their tents. One has a PlayStation. Every day, it seems, someone new shows up.

By last summer, the abutment was so full of tents that some started spilling onto the landing below. This spring, newcomers overflowed onto the grassy shoulder along the interstate. Suddenly, the lepers became visible.

It was all more than the ACLU could take. The organization sued Miami-Dade County on July 9, saying local laws virtually eliminated every place sex offenders could live, "thereby increasing the danger to society."

The next day, Miami sued the state, saying the Department of Corrections created a public nuisance by letting parolees camp on city property.

The story has been in Newsweek and National Public Radio. It has raised questions of justice and freedom, community safety vs. civic responsibility. The penal system released these people — then the community exiled them to a concrete island. You can hate the sex offenders or feel sorry for them — or perhaps both — but it's hard to look beneath the Julia Tuttle Causeway without asking yourself: Is this really what we had in mind?

• • •

Some of the men below the bridge have jobs. Some fry burgers, fix cars or mow yards. Most say they want to work, but no one wants them.

Barkley says he has applied for a dozen positions, from day laborer to dishwasher. He wants to work at a restaurant, he says, so he can "eat regular." His relatives give him odd jobs, buy him canned goods, wash his clothes. He spends his days navigating a maze of social services, reporting to classes and officers, having doors slammed in his face. When he has nothing to do, he rides the bus. It's air conditioned.

Wilson, who served three years for attempted sexual battery on a child younger than 12, is going to community college. He wants to work in an office. He needs to support his 3-year-old son.

Whether they have incomes or not, sexual offenders have to pay the state $20 a week for their rehab classes. They have to find their own meals, bus fare, bottled water. Barkley owes his probation officer $1,827 for his tracking box, plus $1,437.14 for supervision. He even has to pay for his own drug tests.

• • •

When the sun starts to sink, it's time for Barkley to head back to the bridge. He doesn't want to. He's tired of sleeping in a tent, battling bugs and hunger.

He fantasizes about cutting off his ankle monitor, just walking away. One guy under the bridge did it, and no one ever found him. What's the worst that could happen? They'd send him back to prison?

About 9:30, Barkley ducks into a gas station and spends his last $5 on a four-pack of Miller High Life. The cold cans bounce against his leg all the way across the bridge.

"Hey, how'd it go?" Wilson calls when he sees Barkley picking his way down the embankment in the dark.

Barkley sets his bag in front of his tent, pulls up a milk crate. "Well, I got me a shower. And the psychiatrist said I was depressed. He gave me a prescription, but I don't got the money to fill it." His voice drops. "Oh, and everything with that house I told you about? It fell through."

He hides his face in his hands. The house was his only real shot at getting out from under the bridge. "The state guys said that address was okay. I checked," Barkley says. "But now the city put in a new school bus stop. So we can't be there."

He hands Wilson a beer, then holds up another. A golden stream spills from the bottom, runs down his arm. He must have crushed the can climbing over the guardrail.

He peels off his T-shirt, wipes his arm, swats a mosquito.

Across the bay, he watches the lights of Miami's skyscrapers wink on, piercing the blackness below the bridge.

• • •

The words scroll across Barkley's electronic monitor a week later: "Come in Friday ... bring all your equipment." He calls his probation officer and asks what's going on.

You failed your urine test, the officer tells him. Smoking reefer again, huh?

Turns out the foreclosed house wasn't the only way out of here.

Later, packing his tent, Barkley won't admit he was trying to get sent back to prison. But he doesn't seem sorry to leave this netherworld by the bay.

"In a way, it will be a break, after being out here for so long," he says. "I haven't really relaxed since I came home."

He catches himself, and laughs.

"I can't believe I just called this place home."

Lane DeGregory can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8825. Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.

Registered sexual offenders Under federal or state supervision
Pinellas 1,376 334
Hillsborough 1,554 537
Pasco 77 183
Miami-Dade 2,108 479
Statewide 52,112 7,944

Source: FDLE, DOC, Florida Parole Commission

Fast facts

Sexual offenders

Florida requires sexual predators and offenders to register with the state, even after they have completed parole. The state also says that people convicted of committing sex crimes on children must live at least 1,000 feet from any school, park or playground.

Some counties and cities, including Miami-Dade, have adopted stricter laws than the state's — and increased that buffer to almost a half-mile. Some also added school bus stops to the restricted areas.

Around Tampa Bay, most communities follow the state's standard. An exception is New Port Richey, which extended its buffer to 2,500 feet.

Miami sex offenders limited to life under a bridge 08/14/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 18, 2009 4:41pm]
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