FORT MYERS, Fla. — Lee Dugan unzipped his pup tent, his abode in a patch of wilderness off Veronica Shoemaker Boulevard in Fort Myers, Fla.
He grabbed a flashlight and his ID and stowed them in a book bag hitched over his shoulders.
He was a Boy Scout, he said, but that did not prepare him for this.
“It’s survival of the fittest,” said Dugan. He is 46, but looks older.
On this afternoon last month, Dugan was in pursuit of a hot meal. He stepped onto a worn path hemmed by slash pine trees. He passed the camps of his neighbors, who reside under makeshift hovels of tarps and tents in this small colony of homeless people.
But this camp is unique: its inhabitants include sex offenders, who said the Lee County Sheriff’s Office directed them to this hidden spot about a quarter mile east into woods that run along a trail. The woods sit across from the city’s Trailhead Neighborhood Park and abut the Sienna at Vista Lake complex of one- and two-bedroom apartments.
ugan had lived there since October. He had struggled to find someone to hire him after five years in federal prison for possessing child pornography. And it was difficult for him to retain jobs because of mental illness.
He said the sheriff’s office showed him the camp location.
“They’re trying to give us a safe haven,” Dugan said. “They keep a close eye on us.”
The sheriff’s office refused to comment on the assertions.
Sheriff Mike Scott has directed his personnel not to answer questions from the (Fort Myers, Fla.) News-Press. “As you know, we don’t entertain interviews or answer questions with The News-Press,” spokeswoman Tiffany Wood wrote in an email.
But Fort Myers police and social service providers said they’ve also been told it was the sheriff’s office that sent them there.
This much is for sure: Law enforcement knows about the camp. Last year, the sheriff’s office tallied about 120 routine calls checking on sex offenders near the intersection where the camp is located, mostly occurring after another camp of sex offenders was disbanded by city police at the property owner’s request. Since May, at least 10 transient sex offenders and one sexual predator have registered to the camp, records show. Six are currently registered there with convictions that range from sexual battery to lewd behavior toward children, according to a check Friday of Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s sex offender public registry.
Offenders can register as homeless without a precise address. The camp meets Florida requirements, which say that sex offenders can’t live within 1,000 feet from a park, playground, child care facility or school, though last week Fort Myers police said they found a few people living too close to the trail, which qualifies as a park. The sheriff’s office told the police they would move them, police said.
Over the past years, residency restrictions for sex offenders have grown increasingly harsh across the nation. But the question of where they can live is less easily answered. Yet, it’s one that more Florida cities will have to confront as some experts expect the number of homeless sex offenders to multiply.
“It’s in their best interest to escape scrutiny and go to a place where they have less probability of being identified,” said Duane Dobbert, an Florida Gulf Coast University professor in the department of justice studies and author of Halting the Sexual Predators among Us: Preventing Attack, Rape, and Lust Homicide. “You can live outside here and you can avoid and evade public scrutiny because we’re a warm climate.”
A 2013 study by four university researchers, “Transient Sex Offenders and Residence Restrictions in Florida,” called for reconsideration of such restrictions. They cited them as a factor in contributing to higher rates of homelessness in sex offenders. It pointed to housing instability as a risk factor for recidivism, which is lower for sex offenses than other types of crimes.
“When someone has stable housing and a good relationship where they’re with family and supported by the community, recidivism drops dramatically,” said Gail Colletta, president of Florida Action Committee, a nonprofit that advocates for reform of sex offender laws. “We make it difficult for them to get a job and find a place to live. We do everything we can to keep them from being productive citizens.”
In Lee County, no homeless shelters will accept sex offenders because of children on their properties. But who wants a homeless sex offender in the woods near their home or the park where their kids play? Where can they go and who decides where to put them?
“There’s always a solution,” said Dennis Fahey, a criminal justice professor at Edison State College. “But the question is is anybody interested in finding a solution.”
By law, sex offenders must report to their local sheriff’s office either twice or four times a year. If they don’t have a place to stay, they must report within 48 hours. In Lee County, there are about 625 sex offenders compared to 74 sexual predators. Sexual predators have been convicted of a sexually violent offense. There are more than 200 sex offenders in Collier County and 25 predators.
The camp origins are a mystery to Fort Myers police, who discovered it in the city late last year.
“It did raise our concern given the proximity to a park and the proximity to an apartment building,” said Capt. Jim Mulligan of the Fort Myers Police, who has been monitoring it.
Sgt. Tracey Booth, who is in charge of the sheriff’s sex offender and predator unit, told city police no one in her office has directed the homeless sex offenders to the location, city records show.
Florida Department of Corrections spokeswoman Misty Cash said her agency played no role. She declined to facilitate interviews on the matter but responded to written questions.
“We don’t know how these offenders came to know about this camp. They reported to us their address, which did not violate any local ordinances, Florida Statutes or the conditions of their court ordered supervision,” she wrote.
Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson called on law enforcement agencies and city and county leaders to cooperate on a better resolution than using a specific area as a “dumping ground.”
“That’s a bigger issue we need to come together and solve,” he said. “It’s impossible to overdo oversight on this.”
“What’s not an option is moving them around like a checkerboard.”
After Dugan’s April prison release, he stayed at one of the few places that accepts sex offenders, according to social service providers. But he could no longer pay the rent. One October morning, he remembers visiting the Lee County Sheriff’s Office to inform the sex offender unit he was going to be homeless. He was ready with a tent, tarp and few bags of clothes.
They told him he could go to the camp off Veronica Shoemaker, he said, and escorted him to an opening in the brush.
“Probation office isn’t really thrilled about this but that’s where the sheriff’s office put me so it legally allows me to be here,” Dugan said.
No matter how people feel about sex offenders, he pointed out that they still need housing and services to help them rebuild productive lives after their convictions.
“How strenuous do you have to make something before a person just wants to climb in a box and put the nails in themselves?”
Last week, Dugan was arrested for violating his probation, which called for him to find work, a stable home and show up to regular appointments.
There’s no extra state requirements for homeless sex offenders, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The sheriff’s office does have homeless sex offenders sign a letter saying Lee County has no designated land for them and that sex offenders and predators living on undeveloped private property have 45 days to obtain a certified letter stating that they have permission to be there. But some guys have been on the spot longer.
Around December, Fort Myers police began contacting property owners of the wooded area about erecting no-trespassing signs, which they need before they can permanently oust the offenders. The bulk of the land belongs to a land-holding company, Serena Park LLC, which was contacted by the city. Mike Kerver, the company’s vice president, expected to have the signs up soon.
Once the signs are up, police plan to give the offenders a few days to pack and will work in tandem with an advocate for the homeless to try to help them.
“We’re trying to balance everybody in this,” said Mulligan. “I know people don’t like sex offenders in their neighborhoods. They’re not anybody’s favorite.”
But, then what happens? There are scant places for sex offenders to legally live apart from the woods, the south Fort Myers apartments that accept sex offenders and pockets of Lehigh Acres, the local administrator for the Department of Corrections told The News-Press in 2012. The department declined a recent interview request. Mapping of sex offenders’ locations show they reside in pockets throughout Lee County.
Local social service providers could not offer housing options for homeless sex offenders and neither could the state’s homelessness director.
“It’s hard to get people to come forward to help that group of people and want to establish housing, but it is a public safety concern,” said Janet Bartos, executive director of the Lee County Homeless Coalition.