Five convicted sex offenders are living under a noisy motorway bridge in Miami with the grudging approval of authorities because a law intended to keep predators away from children made it nearly impossible for them to find housing.
Some of them sleep on cardboard raised slightly off the ground to avoid the rats. One of the men beds down on a pallet with a blanket and pillow. Some have been there for several weeks.
“You just pray to God every night, so if you fall asleep for a minute or two, you know, nothing happens to you,” said 30-year-old Javier Diaz, who arrived this week. He was sentenced in 2005 to three years’ probation for lewd and lascivious conduct involving a girl under 16.
The conditions are a consequence of laws passed in the US to bar sex offenders from living near schools, parks and other places children gather.
Miami-Dade County’s 2005 law – adopted partly in reaction to the case of a convicted sex offender who raped a nine-year-old Florida girl and buried her alive – says sex offenders must live at least 2,500ft from schools.
The five men under the Julia Tuttle Causeway are the only known sex offenders authorised to live outdoors in Florida, says Corrections Department spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger.
“This is not an ideal situation for anybody, but at this point we don’t have any other options,” she said. “We’re still looking. The offenders are still actively searching for residences.”
But she conceded a point many experts have made: This “is a problem that is going to have to be addressed. If we drive these offenders so far underground or we can’t supervise them because they become so transient, it’s not making us safer."
The men must stay at the bridge between 10pm and 6am and a parole officer checks on them nearly every night, Plessinger said.
They have fishing poles to catch food, cook with small stoves, use battery-powered TVs and radios and keep their belongings in plastic bags. Diaz has trouble charging the GPS tracking device he is required to wear; there are no power outlets nearby.
The whoosh of cars passing overhead echoes loudly under the causeway, which runs over Biscayne Bay, connecting Miami and Miami Beach.
Diaz said he and the other men feared for their lives, especially because of “crazy people who might try to come harm sex offenders”.
The state moved the men under the bridge from their previous home – which was next to a centre for sexually abused children and close to a day care centre - after they were unable to find affordable housing that did not break the law.