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Published Feb. 11, 2008

The state is trying to dissolve a community of sex offenders living under a bridge - complete with a makeshift gym, kitchen and living room - more than a year after the men started staying there.

The men, who call a slope beneath Julia Tuttle Causeway home, do so because it's nearly impossible for sex offenders with limited money to find a home in Miami in compliance with local ordinances. But state officials are now telling the men 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.

The 19 men who live beneath the Tuttle Causeway vow to fight the state.

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. He has been rejected for 15 jobs and can't find an affordable place in compliance with the law.

"What the law's doing to us is totally wrong," said Martin, who has lived at the camp for about six months. "Society will see that we aren't animals."

All told, corrections officials count fewer than 50 homeless sex offenders statewide.

The situation is garnering the attention of state lawmakers. State Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Wilton Manors, said that while restrictions to keep sex offenders away from children are good, communities are trying to one-up each other with tougher restrictions.

He said the state may have to adopt uniform standards.

"There has to be someplace 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."