The small town of Miracle Village is located in the middle of nowhere.
Tucked away between thousands of acres of thick sugarcane fields in southern Florida, you can guarantee this place will never be on any school field trip itinerary. That’s because half of the town’s population are registered sex offenders.
These are people who have been found guilty, and most often than not served a prison sentence, for a sex crime. Some of them molested their own children, abused minors while in positions of power (teachers, sports coaches and pastors), exposed themselves in public, viewed or sold child pornography, or slept with underage girls.
Just east of Pahokee, and at the edge of the everglades, this town used to be known as Pelican Lake, where an assortment of yellow one-story duplexes were built as housing for sugar workers and their families.
Back in 2009, the late Dick Witherow, an activist pastor with Matthew 25 Ministries, turned Pelican Lake into the rural Christian community it is today. His aim was to do something about the people he called “modern-day lepers,” and assist them in rebuilding their lives from scratch. His allegiance was based, partially, on his own experience.
When Witherow was 18, he impregnated his future wife, who was only 14-years-old at the time.
“If that would have happened in today’s society,” he explained to NPR, “I would have been charged with sexual battery of a minor, given anywhere from 10 to 25 years in prison, plus extended probation time after that, then been labeled a sex offender.”
From the outside looking in, you’d never be able to guess that many residents have committed atrocious crimes. But upon closer inspection, you’ll realize they’re tagged with ankle monitors, are forced to obey a 7 p.m. curfew, and are not allowed to own or operate a cell phone or laptop.
“It’s open to everybody,” Witherow said. “However, the only ones that are really looking to be out here in the boondocks and pay $100 a week to live with somebody else, basically, are those who don’t have anyplace else to go, which are the sex offenders.”
According to Florida’s strict state laws, none of these offenders are allowed to live within 1,000 feet of a daycare, park, playground or school. Some cities and counties within the state have even expanded those restrictions up to 2,500 feet — that’s about half a mile — and made sure to place libraries, bus stops and swimming pools off limits as well. This has made living in most towns and cities virtually impossible.
The objective is to drive sex offenders out of their hometowns, out of densely populated areas. The Bradford County Sheriff’s Office even goes as far as placing big red warning signs in front of sex offenders’ homes to warn passerby.
Despite the fact that they may travel practically anywhere they desire during the day, when night falls they are required to be at an address that abides by the residency restrictions set forth by the law.
Some folks who violate their probation are actually court ordered to relocate to the quaint town — the only other option being a lengthy prison sentence.
Across Florida, there are over 55,000 registered offenders, with more than 100 living in Miracle Mile. There is one woman, the remainder are men. The majority of them have been exiled here because they cannot find anywhere else in the state that complies with the law, or have been shunned by society altogether. Although, it is a far better place to reside than the bridges so many sex offenders are found sleeping under. It’s practically the only place they feel at home and safe.
There are a few children who live at Miracle Village with their parents, but Florida’s laws don’t prevent sex offenders from living in the same neighborhood as minors.
Jerry Youmans, the intake coordinator for the ministry and registered sex offender, says the town gets countless applications from people wanting to join the community.
“We get between 10 and 20 a week”, he reveals. “We try not to accept people with a history of violence or drugs, or to take any diagnosed paedophile – that is, someone who can only become sexually aroused by a child. We want to protect the people who are already here and those who were living here before us.”
While there’s no evidence to prove that a sex offender’s relapse into criminal behavior is lower if they live away from places where children assemble, supporters claim that children are more at risk if predators live close.
For a closer look, check out a mini documentary about Miracle Village below.
Featured Images: thelifeofm.com/J Pat Carter/AP