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Florida housing sex offenders under bridge

Story Highlights

• Sex offenders can't live within 2,500 feet of places children might gather
• In an urban area like Miami, this leaves few options for the convicted criminals
• A handful of sex offenders are now living under a bridge
By John Zarrella and Patrick Oppmann
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MIAMI, Florida (CNN) -- The sparkling blue waters off Miami's Julia Tuttle Causeway look as if they were taken from a postcard. But the causeway's only inhabitants see little paradise in their surroundings.

Five men -- all registered sex offenders convicted of abusing children -- live along the causeway because there is a housing shortage for Miami's least welcome residents.

"I got nowhere I can go!" says sex offender Rene Matamoros, who lives with his dog on the shore where Biscayne Bay meets the causeway.

The Florida Department of Corrections says there are fewer and fewer places in Miami-Dade County where sex offenders can live because the county has some of the strongest restrictions against this kind of criminal in the country.

Florida's solution: house the convicted felons under a bridge that forms one part of the causeway.

The Julia Tuttle Causeway, which links Miami to Miami Beach, offers no running water, no electricity and little protection from nasty weather. It's not an ideal solution, Department of Corrections Officials told CNN, but at least the state knows where the sex offenders are.

Nearly every day a state probation officer makes a predawn visit to the causeway. Those visits are part of the terms of the offenders' probation which mandates that they occupy a residence from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

But what if a sex offender can't find a place to live?

That is increasingly the case, say state officials, after several Florida cities enacted laws that prohibit convicted sexual offenders from living within 2,500 feet of schools, parks and other places where children might gather. (Watch one sex offender describe how he was forced to give up an apartment Video)

Bruce Grant of the Florida Department of Corrections said the laws have not only kept sex offenders away from children but forced several to live on the street.

"Because of those restrictions, because there are many places that children congregate, because of 2,500 feet, that's almost half a mile, that's a pretty long way when you are talking about an urban area like Miami, so it isn't surprising that we say we are trying but we don't have a place for these people to live in," Grant said.

For several of the offenders, the causeway is their second experience at homelessness. Some of them lived for months in a lot near downtown Miami until officials learned that the lot bordered a center for sexually abused children.

Trudy Novicki, executive director of Kristi House, said the offenders' presence put the center's children at risk. "It was very troublesome to learn that across the street there are people who are sex offenders that could be a danger to our children," she said.

Keeping the rats off

With nowhere to put these men, the Department of Corrections moved them under the Julia Tuttle Causeway. With the roar of cars passing overhead, convicted sex offender Kevin Morales sleeps in a chair to keep the rats off him.

"The rodents come up next to you, you could be sleeping the whole night and they could be nibbling on you," he said.

Morales has been homeless and living under the causeway for about three weeks. He works, has a car and had a rented apartment but was forced to move after the Department of Corrections said a swimming pool in his building put him too close to children.

The convicted felons may not be locked up anymore, but they say it's not much of an improvement.

"Jail is anytime much better than this, than the life than I'm living here now," Morales said. "[In jail] I can sleep better. I get fed three times a day. I can shower anytime that I want to."

Morales said that harsher laws and living conditions for sex offenders may have unintended consequences.

"The tougher they're making these laws unfortunately it's scaring offenders and they're saying, 'You know what, the best thing for me to do is run,'" Morales said.

A Miami Herald investigation two years ago found that 1,800 sex offenders in Florida were unaccounted for after violating probation.

Florida's system for monitoring them needs to be fixed, says state Senator Dave Aronberg, who proposed a bill to increase electronic monitoring and create a uniform statewide limit that would keep them 1,500 feet away from places where children go.

'We need to know where these people are at all times," Aronberg said after CNN invited him to tour the bridge where the sex offenders live. "We need residency restrictions, but just don't have this hodgepodge of every city having something different."

State officials say unless the law changes their hands are tied, and for now the sex offenders will stay where they are: under a bridge in the bay.

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