Out at a tent village populated mostly by registered sex offenders on the edge of Miami and Hialeah, it appeared most had packed up their stuff Friday evening in the face of Hurricane Irma.
A few tents still stood a few hours before their 10:00 curfew, but most had bundled belongings underneath tarps or rolled in their disassembled tents.
But there’s a problem.
“There’s this dilemma of where can they go,” said Jill Levenson a professor at Barry University who studies the effectiveness of policy as it relates to sex offenders.
On a normal day, registered sex offenders have a hard time finding a place to live.
In an evacuation like the ones that have been called across Florida, that becomes extremely difficult, and it does not appear as if the state has a plan in place for those individuals.
Residency restrictions vary from county to county, but at a minimum in Florida, registered sex offenders are not allowed to live within 1,000 feet of any school, park or daycare. In certain counties like Miami-Dade and Broward, those restrictions can increase to 2,500 feet and include restricted zones around ever-moving bus stops.
“For the most part they really can't go stay with family and friends, even if they do have a safe place to go with somebody they know, because chances are those addresses aren't going to be compliant with the ordinances or with the residence laws,” explains Levenson.
Most hurricane shelters do not allow sex offenders to stay there. On the intake sheet in Broward County, there is a check box asking if you are an individual required to register your location with local law enforcement. These stem from safety concerns for the other people—many families with children—who come to these shelters for help.
“So the solution in Florida has been for anybody who's in an evacuation zone or is homeless or has nowhere to go, they can be sheltered in the jails.”
The Department Of Corrections says they accept individuals who are on active probation, individuals who are under their supervision. DOC did not confirm if they would take individuals who were off probation, but face similar residency restrictions.
Some are sheltering at the Miami Reception Center, but they had to provide their own transportation.
If these individuals are on probation, they can also coordinate with their probation officer who can help come up with a plan to see if a friend or family is within an acceptable area.
For sex offenders who are no longer on probation and no longer required to register, there is no probation officer to check with or services. It's unclear where they're supposed to go.
While Levenson acknowledges the seriousness of many of these individuals’ crime, she points out many have already spent time in prison, are monitored and mandated to treatment.
“Regardless of one’s history of criminal behavior, we really need to make sure that every human being is protected in a natural disaster, and that sensible plans are in place to ensure the safety of individuals balanced reasonably with the risk they may pose,” said Levenson.
Ted Rodarm is executive director of Matthew 25 Ministries, one of the largest communities of sex-offenders in the country. Roughly 120 sex-offenders live there, because it complies with the residency restrictions. He says Broward County officials have reached out to him wondering what to do with the registered sex offenders who live in the county.
“The truth is, I don’t know,” said Rodarm about people outside of his community who need to evacuate. “There is no solution at this point… these are problems that have not been solved yet and when an emergency arises like this, this is when we realize that something needs to be done.”
He’s on the Palm Beach County re-entry task force and says they are working on it, but it’s going to take the help of a lot of people and organizations to solve this problem.
He says the lack of planning on this front it troubling.
“These are our citizens that we are putting at risk. Yes, they have returned from prison, but they are citizens and we all need to act to protect them,” said Rodarm.
Matthew 25 is located just outside of Pahokee, which is under an evacuation order due to its proximity to the dikes that hold back the waters of lake Okeechobee. In a briefing Friday, the Army Corps of Engineers said it was not concerned about a break of the aging Hoover dike, but had identified three areas under construction where water could splash and run over the temporary damns.
Matthew 25 is about 5 miles from the lake. Many of the roofs on building on their campus are new, after Hurricane Wilma ripped off the shingled roofs in 2005.
He says they are hunkering down as best they can. Their only other option for residents is Martin Correctional, which is about 45 miles from Matthew 25.
And depending on how things go, he suggests going back to prison for those who need shelter either now, or after the storm has passed.
“Worst case scenario, you will be safe there, I know it’s not pleasant, but you will be safe,” said Rodarm.