PAHOKEE, Fla. — More than 4,000 thousand sex offenders and predators reside in central Florida, and about 10 percent of those registered offenders and predators have nowhere to go when they are released from prison.
Channel 9 anchor Jamie Holmes found one south Florida community may have found a solution. It’s an entire neighborhood made up only of sex offenders, who would otherwise be homeless.
Nestled in the swaying sugar cane fields off Lake Okeechobee sits a neighborhood that isn't quite as sweet.
“I picked up a minor,” registered sex offender Steven Frezza told Holmes when he visited the small community made up of felons convicted of sex crimes.
“How old were you?” Holmes asked Frezza. “How old was the minor?”
“I was 29. She was 15,” Frezza answered.
Frezza wore an ankle monitor while Holmes observed him cooking his chicken dinner at home. Frezza lives in a neighborhood made up of at least 100 others just like him -- all sex offenders.
And Frezza maintains that if not for this community, he'd be homeless; Even probation officers had few options for him.
“Probation said, ‘Go live in your car,’ so I started living in my car,” Frezza said. “Started sleeping at the McDonald's, the Walgreens, behind the Ale House.”
When a slot opened up at Matthew 25 Ministries, Frezza moved to a small town that once served as housing for sugar cane workers; Everyone living there has to work and pay rent.
“The result of that is it decreases homelessness. It decreases unemployment, and it increases public safety,” said Ted Rodarm, of Matthew 25 Ministries.
The Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office is perfectly happy to have all of these offenders residing in one place.
“We don't have to go hunt for them under bridges, in wooded areas, in places we have to ferret them out,” said Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw.
The key, the sheriff explained, is location. Matthew 25 Ministries isn't near anyone, or really anything.
But could this model for housing sex offenders work in central Florida, a region where dozens of motels are filled with homeless families living alongside registered sex offenders?
Darren Roberts runs HOST, which provides housing for sex offenders getting out of prison in central Florida. All too often, he says, probation officers have nowhere to tell offenders to go.
“I believe law enforcement would be very pro-active to the centralized location, because it lets probation officers visit more offenders in one clean sweep,” Roberts told Holmes.
Yet for now, there's no plan to bring anything like Matthew 25 Ministries to Central Florida. It would come down to funding, and location.
Roberts says a central location would work, as long as the offenders could find a job to pay rent. But for those in Pahokee, being all together is a lot better than being on their own.
“For many of the guys that are out here, this is the only option, aside from living on the street or in their car,” Rodarm said.
Five years ago, a centralized sex offender community was pitched locally in rural Lake County, but the idea was shot down. Meanwhile, there are already several large sex offender clusters in Orange County, where offenders can still live and meet distance requirements.
Housing officials say a centralized location would have to waive the first few months’ rent to allow offenders time to get a job out of prison.