MIAMI (Reuters) - Alejandro Ruiz and his neighbors served their time for sex crimes but found themselves sleeping under a Miami highway bridge because laws meant to keep them away from children leave them nowhere else to live.
Their dismal tent camp, tucked under an overpass on a causeway linking Miami and Miami Beach, reeks of human waste and garbage. But it is the official home of a group of sex offenders caught in a dilemma echoed across the United States.
"Where are we supposed to go? The way they label you, sex offender, nobody wants you around," Ruiz said.
Cities and states have enacted a hodgepodge of laws to keep sex offenders away from victims. In the Miami area, such laws ban them from living within 2,500 feet of schools, playgrounds and other places where children might gather.
The tiny bridge encampment, home to between 15 and 30 men on any given night, is one of the few places in the booming metropolis the paroled offenders can legally live.
In some cases, their probation officers have ordered them to live there. Several have it listed as their address on their driver's licenses -- "Under the Julia Tuttle Causeway."
"I am not a monster. I am not a leper," said Kevin Morales, 40, who was convicted of lewd and lascivious conduct with a 15-year-old relative.
On a recent day, eight tents were perched on a ledge under the beams of the highway and two makeshift shelters built of plastic sheets sat next to graffiti-scrawled concrete columns reading "We're not monsters" and "They treat us like shit."
Just a few feet from the sparkling waters of Biscayne Bay, the camp has no running water and residents use a small beach as a toilet. "We make a hole like the cats," Morales said.
Ruiz, a 67-year-old who served 14 months for lewd and lascivious conduct with a minor, said he was ordered to live under the bridge. Then last week, Florida's Department of Corrections told the men to find other accommodation.
"They told us to live here and now they say run? Run to where? To the Everglades where the crocodiles will eat you?" he asked.
In the United States sex offenders can range from rapists and pedophiles to youngsters convicted of illegal but consensual relationships with minors.
The prisons service said there are about 50 homeless registered sex offenders across Florida. The Julia Tuttle camp is the largest group -- officially, 13 as of last week.
Probation officers approved the bridge as a home because it is outside the 2,500-foot zone. Residents have a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew, and officers check nearly every day to make sure they are home on time, Corrections Department spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said.
"It has never been our policy to tell an offender where they can live but in Miami-Dade in particular it's difficult to find a place," she said.
Plessinger said the department has asked the men to leave, but would not force them out. "They are not breaking any law."
More than two dozen states and many more towns and cities have buffer laws meant to protect children. But in some states, prosecutors, police and child advocates have demanded the laws be repealed because they are not working.
The laws are based on flawed thinking, said Jill Levenson, a professor of human services at Lynn University in Boca Raton who has researched sex crimes and buffer zones.
"Residence restrictions play on the fear of 'stranger danger' lurking in playgrounds and school grounds," she said. "But most children who are abused are abused by someone who is well known to them."
Some buffer laws force the men to sleep far from schools and playgrounds but they are free to travel during the day, she said. And such laws hinder the offenders' return to society.
The American Civil Liberties Union called the bridge camp "cruel and unusual punishment."
Sex offenders living in such camps will simply disappear from radar screens, ACLU Florida President Jeanne Baker said.
"The laws drive people underground," she said. "They do not achieve the goal of making the world safer for our children."