Thursday, April 30, 2009

Rickyslife Visits Julia Tuttle Causeway

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Mary Duval

P.O. Box 1128

Stilwell, OK 74960


Dear Reader,

Attached you will find the article I wrote after my son Ricky and I visited the Julia Tuttle Bridge on April 1, 2009. Enclosed on the CD are the photos we took that day. Thank you for taking the time to read my words. I hope you will find the information they contain useful to you. I hope you will consider the plight of these people. You can use both the article and the photos I took in any way you see fit. I only ask that you give me the credit for whatever you use. I would appreciate hearing back from you on this matter.

Sincerely yours,

Mary Duval

The lost; The forgotten; The unknown

The day came in a glory of fire over the Caribbean waters as Miami began to bustle in the humid air. The sky lit up like a ray of rainbows as the sun began to rise and dawn broke.

As we, my son Ricky and I, watched the sun rise and quietly discussed the Julia Tuttle Bridge, our determination to locate it and see for ourselves what we read in the National news. Part of it may be curiosity but also a need as a human and civil rights advocate to proceed to locate those registered living under this famous causeway and to let them know there are advocates who truly care and find it horrifying how they are forced to live.

Outside our hotel we stood quietly on a nearby pier watching the sun rise. This pier overlooked a local marina which was filled with yachts and smaller vessels. We couldn’t help but notice a few yards away the homeless sleeping on their blankets as the warm breeze offered a small comfort as they slept peacefully in a world which seemed to be so brutal due to the economy.

Ricky had been watching them, with his young mind; he questioned why we have homeless living like this and were they “sex offenders”? I knew it was impossible and stated to him, as the sun continues to rise over the water, that they were simply homeless men since nearby was a elementary school and Miami law prohibited registered sex offenders from living 2,500 feet from a public school or park. We made our way back to our hotel room, in an area known to Miami as “Coconut Grove” and prepared for our mission, to locate the bridge and find those under it.

As the hot and humid sun continued to rise over Miami we found ourselves inside a taxi cab with a Hispanic male who seemed quite brisk and even downright rude. We told him we wanted to be delivered to the Julia Tuttle Bridge and his reaction was, ‘Why’? Ricky spoke up and explained to him we were looking for the homeless living there to do a story and the driver retorted, “We have no homeless under the bridge,” and then said, “I need the address of bridge to take you.”

We were by this time a couple blocks from the hotel and the hair on the back of my neck rose in alarm due to the man’s attitude. I, again, explained we had no address just the name of the bridge and this seemed to make him get quite angry. Instantly realizing this may have been a mistake I told him to let us out of the cab and we pay him what we owe and we would find us a police officer who could be of assistance. Shockingly, he refused and with heavy Spanish accent told us, “You want to go to bridge, I take you to bridge,” and then proceeded to again repeat, “You want to go to bridge, I take you to bridge!”

By this time, being from a small town, and a protective mother, due to the scarlet letter my own son wore, I drew a deep breath and calmed myself. I sensed Ricky’s confusion and anger at the cab driver and told him to stay calm. I then told him loud enough for the cab driver to hear me that we would find ourselves a police officer and file a report since it seemed we were being kidnapped after we asked to be let out of the cab.

This drew the cab drivers attention as he asked me what organization I represent. I answered “One which advocates for human and civil rights.” He seemed to dislike my answer as he continued to speed through traffic towards the bridge, I hoped.

Moments later, we began crossing a long bridge, bustling with traffic and he spoke to us, that this was the bridge. He continued to drive for a couple more miles and then he swerved towards the side of the road. At this point Ricky said, “Let us out here.” The cab driver seemed perplexed as to why we wanted to be at the bridge but said nothing. His job would soon lead him to another tourist and we soon be forgotten. We paid the cab fare and found ourselves to the side of the Julia Tuttle Bridge which seemed to stretch on before us, like the abyss of the unknown.

We proceed to walk and soon found a bagel shop. Entering, I asked an African American gentleman if he could tell us how to get under the causeway. At first he didn’t answer and looked at us with curiosity and then asked Ricky, “Why do you want to go under the bridge?”

Ricky explained to him we were looking for the homeless registered sex offenders who are reported to be living there and we were with an organization called ‘SOSEN’.

The bagel shop worker informed us “if” there were any homeless under the bridge then it is back at the other end, not here where the cab driver delivered us. He said we could walk back across the bridge and find the street but warned us it would be a long walk. We thanked him and stepped back outside to figure out our next move. Ricky commented to me it was a long walk back across and worried we would be hit by traffic or harassed by police for walking along the interstate.

So we began to walk in the area and ask others who were busy walking or waiting at the public bus signs how we get under the bridge from this side? Many were unsure, some were curious why ‘we’ wanted to get under the bridge and others blatantly ignored us as some pesky tourists who had a fetish for a bridge.

Finally, Ricky left me on the sidewalk and hopped onto a bus to ask a public transit driver. They told him to catch bus 120 back across the bridge. So we stood there and waited. Bus 120 came and the lady transit driver told us she indeed would go back to the other side and to come aboard. We did, thankful for the momentary respite from the heavy humidity which seem so oppressive to us since our arrival on the plane the day before. The bus was full to capacity so Ricky and I held onto a bar as the bus lurch forward but then a gentleman moved and offered me his seat so I would not lose my balance.

We, within minutes, were back on the other side of the bridge. We left the coolness of the bus and thanked the driver for her assistance. As we began to look around we found ourselves near a public park where many were walking their dogs. We proceeded to the park, and began walking towards the bridge which you could see before us. However, Ricky quickly realized due to a fence we had no access and so we trekked back to where the bus deposited us.

Here, we ran into another gentleman and asked him how to get under the bridge to locate the homeless and he told us there were none, that Floridians do not put their people under bridges. We assured him there were homeless there but he wandered off with his dog continuing on their morning walk, unconcerned at the thought of homeless people living under a bridge within sight.

We found ourselves frustrated at how no one seemed to be aware of the homeless people under the bridge, sensing some knew and just didn’t seem to care as it had no effect on their life in the busy bustle of Miami. We were hot, tired and thirsty at this point but we continued on, determined to find these men and see for ourselves this famous Julia Tuttle Causeway.

Again, we continued to ask around on how to get under the bridge and finally a British man who was walking his Great Dane and he told us we have to walk along the bridge and climb over the guardrail and hike down the side. He warned us it was a couple miles hike back and felt since I was a woman and with a youthful son, we should be careful. Finally, we had a idea of how to find the men and the directions to get there. Excitement raced through me, as we turned and headed for the actual famous Julia Tuttle Bridge and the unknown.

As we began the walk across the bridge, with traffic racing by us, almost like we were invisible, a feeling of unease settled over me, not because we were going to the bridge, but because we were hiking along the interstate fearing Miami police would stop us in violation of some law.

The Julia Tuttle Bridge seemed endless before us, as we walked along the hot pavement of the interstate, the sun beating down upon our heads, the humidity pressing in on us making us sweat. Time passed slowly as we continued to walk until finally we stopped at the guardrail. Ricky noted there was a path leading down below.

After helping me over the rail, we began slowly to descend the side of the bridge; Ricky noted carpets and blankets as well as trash along the path. The ground was moist and muddy and a few times I lost my footing and slipped but we continued on our mission to find the homeless offenders.

At the bottom we saw a couple men fishing from a little pond and they simply stared at us but said nothing. We said hello and continued on, unsure if they were part of the colony we sought out. As we kept on, we came to the bridge; we saw a sign painted in black on the bridge pillars which read, “We R not monsters,” and first happened upon a Hispanic male who could not speak English but his girlfriend interpreted for us. We did not want to offend anyone and made this clear to her and she told us the camp was empty as most of the men were gone. They said we were welcome to take pictures but they asked us to respect others who were farther up the bridge. We promised to respect their privacy.

As we moved farther back under the bridge we came across many tents and carpets. This was where these men were forced to live. We found a camper and wondered if the ‘woman’ offender we read about in a previous week’s news article was there. As we continued taking photos, we came across another young offender who was sitting in his car with a young woman. We quickly learned his name is Bryan and the woman was his wife who also lived under the bridge. I remember thinking of the concern for the lone woman offender here and yet it appeared there were other women living here.

As we talked, Bryan told us of his story and how he at age 19 was falsely accused of rape and even the police stated they thought the woman had lied. I asked him if the Prosecutor had DNA evidence and he said no they literally told him if he did not take a plea bargain of five years probation then he would lose a jury trial and be sentenced to fifteen years. He had a public defender.

We took a photo with Bryan in front of the sign, “We R not monsters,” and continued to discuss the colony these men and their girlfriends and wives were being forced to live in. I asked him about the woman offender and he was not aware of her and said if she had been there its possible she had been removed. We went to the camper where we were told a man named Marcos lived and knocked but he did not answer so we again moved back to Bryan’s car.

He told us how “Rocky” was fighting to get them help and get them from under the bridge and how his wife and him prayed soon they be free from living like this. He then showed me his GPS monitor and I asked him how much it cost and he replied, “seven dollars a day.” How does one pay for this with no job? No home? Bryan said he feared being violated since he could not afford the costs of probation such as treatment, probation fees and GPS monitoring. He went on, along with his wife, to tell us how he used to work in construction and did well but last year they lost their job. His wife had a apartment but Bryan could not live there and she, bravely and courageously, chose to move into the colony to be with him.

Bryan’s wife was quiet but there was a sweetness about her and I learned she was only 20. She had been dating Bryan when this happened and decided to stand by him in the name of love. I said nothing but could sense tiredness about this young woman and how living under the bridge was taking its toll on her. Ricky seemed to sense this too, as he told her he hoped he could find a woman to love him so unconditionally, to stand beside him even though his own country and people treat him like a pariah, and he told her he was honored to have met her.

Our words seemed to surprise Bryan’s wife and she thanked us in her quiet voice. She began to open up a bit to me as Ricky and Bryan walked around looking at things and she mentioned how it seemed no one cared about them. She repeated what the sign says, “We R not monsters,” and I assured her there are thousands of people across this once great country that do care and we would seek help for them. I promised I would not give up on her and Bryan once I left the bridge and returned home. She had my word.

Bryan and Ricky came back and he asked me if I knew who slept on the carpet next to him? I obviously had no clue and he then preceded to tell us that piece of rug belonged to a 18 year old boy. I was shocked, stunned and horrified at this thought and it smacked me, like the humidity this could easily be my Ricky. The mothers in me silently questioned where in the hell are these kids’ parents? Where are the families who should be outraged at how their loved ones are being treated worse than animals and forced to live under a hot, damp bridge with no running water or toilets available?

I turned to Bryan and asked him what do you all do with your trash? He told us it was piled over in a burn pile even though they were not supposed to burn trash. Another hardship placed on the men and women under the bridge where the unsanitary conditions. I asked where they use the bathroom at. Bryan pointed to some Palm Trees and said they go behind there and they were careful not to be charged with a second sex crime of ‘indecent exposure’.

As we spoke to Bryan, the heat continued to be oppressive and I began to feel faint and ill. Bryan and his wife immediately started their car and turned on the air and placed me in the backseat. They offered to take us back to the hotel which we gratefully accepted.

Within minutes we were on our way back to the hotel and Bryan and his wife were kind and considerate towards us. The cool air was refreshing and by the time we were back in our room I was feeling much better.

Later as we sat there preparing for the Cristina show I pondered over the events of the day and realized those registered offenders under the bridge are truly ostracized from the community and are the lost, the forgotten and the unknown to the world.

We may read articles in National News about those being forced to live under the bridge but nothing compares to being there and experiencing the conditions these men and women deal with daily.

The questions which reverberate through my mind are:

*How can this be in a country called the United States?

*Is this the catalyst for more violations of human and civil rights as more states pass legislation regarding residency laws?

*Is this colony of registered sex offenders the future of all offenders across this once great land?

Days have passed since our return home and one thing which remains is the desperation and tragedy in Bryans voice as he reflected on his future under the Julia Tuttle Causeway. Is there any way for me as a mother, an advocate and a human to help these men and women?

Daily I work with many who suffer because of these laws and yet should my son and I be thankful we do not live under a bridge? Will this day come?

We realize now as we are back home in our trailer with running water and food, a warm bed to sleep in that maybe, even though these laws are destroying our lives and my family is the collateral damage, that we should be thankful for the small blessings we have.

These include; a group of advocates and friends who care, a home and, most of all, we have each other.

Indeed it’s the small blessings we should be thankful for.

Written by,

Mary Duval
April 6, 2009