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Sex offender ban sought for homeless shelters

TESTING CAPABILITIES ‘They’re asking us to do something that shelters were never intended to do,’ said Mark Alston-Follansbee. TESTING CAPABILITIES
‘They’re asking us to do something that shelters were never intended to do,’ said Mark Alston-Follansbee.
By David Abel
Globe Staff / November 18, 2009

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The most dangerous sex offenders would be barred from staying at homeless shelters under a plan proposed by advocates for the homeless and endorsed by key legislators.

As the state’s steep budget cuts have forced organizations that help the homeless to cut beds, staff, and programs, the advocates for the needy say banning sex offenders would allow shelters to save money on security, open up space for others, and make shelters safer.

The Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance, which represents 90 organizations that provide services to the homeless, has urged state lawmakers to add shelters to an increasingly long list of residential bans for many sex offenders. They are already barred in some communities from living near schools, day-care centers, parks, playgrounds, libraries, or nursing homes.

While those who study sex offender recidivism rates say such residential restrictions are counterproductive, state lawmakers who support the proposed legislation argue that it also would fix a loophole in the law, which for five years has required the most dangerous sex offenders to post their names, addresses, and photos on a public website. They say too many sex offenders bypass the law by listing a homeless shelter as their address when they live elsewhere.

“There are some really bad people, and we have to provide protections against them,’’ said Senator James E. Timilty, a Walpole Democrat who co-chairs the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security and sponsored the legislation. “I think we have a superseding need to protect the public. I would suggest it’s not fair to the families who are recently homeless to have them living next to sex offenders.’’

In a review yesterday of 162 Level 3 sex offenders - those with a high risk of committing sex crimes again - who list addresses in Boston on the state’s online registry, the Globe found that at least 74 percent reported they were living at homeless shelters.

The state uses 27 criteria to classify someone as a Level 3 sex offender, including how inmates behaved in prison and whether their victims were children.

“This is the only solution to make our communities safe and allow the registry to work properly,’’ said Joe Finn, executive director of the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance.

“Even in the best of times, we don’t have the capacity to deal with these issues, but the recent cuts exacerbate the problem and make it difficult for shelters to raise money when their work is getting undermined because of the perception that we’re somehow harboring or attracting sexual offenders to our communities,’’ he said. But those who treat sex offenders and monitor recidivism rates say such residential restrictions make it more likely they will commit future crimes.

Tracy Velazquez, executive director of the Washington-based Justice Policy Institute and author of a report, “The Pursuit of Safety: Sex Offender Policy in the United States,’’ said Massachusetts would be one of the few states to pass such a restriction. Florida also bans sex offenders from homeless and hurricane shelters.

She said if the bill becomes law, Massachusetts would join other states in making it more likely that a sex offender ends up on the street. In 2000, she said only five states had residential restrictions limiting the proximity of an offender to a school, park, or nursing home; now 30 states have such restrictions, forcing many into homelessness.

“If the purpose of this ban is to continue to punish and effectively banish people after they’ve done their time and paid their debt to society, then it’s a pretty effective policy,’’ she said. “If it’s to increase public safety, then banning registered sex offenders from shelters is counterproductive. It will make it harder for law enforcement to keep track of their whereabouts, and harder for them to meet their basic human needs, which in turn makes it harder for them to live successfully in the community.’’ She and others said research shows there’s no link between where sex offenders live and whether they commit new crimes.

Jill Levenson, a professor of human services who researches sex crime policy at Lynn University in Florida, said a study she completed last year of 330 sex offenders who live near schools and day-care centers in Florida found that they were no more likely to re-offend than other former convicts.

“The risk that sex offenders might pose in shelters for women and children may make sense, but to ban them from any shelter would have to be balanced with the need to provide social services to sex offenders,’’ she said. “If someone is homeless, despondent, and desperate, they’re more likely to resume a life of crime.’’

Others questioned the constitutionality of banning sex offenders from shelters, which are often obligated by state contracts to accept just about anyone they have room for who presents themselves as homeless.

Officials at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, which has opposed similar residential restrictions from Barnstable to Lynn, argue that they impose additional punishment after convicts have served their time.

“Just as a matter of public policy, these restrictions make no sense,’’ said John Reinstein, legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “Do we want to cut them loose entirely, so we don’t know where they are? What does someone do with no place to live, and they can’t go to a homeless shelter? And what are the implications for public safety and the sex offender law, which requires them to register where they live?’’

Shelter officials say they were stung this month when the state cut $2.7 million from homeless shelters.

The ban on sex offenders in shelters is being offered as an amendment to the crime bill, which is expected to see Senate action today.

Shelter officials said they shouldn’t be stuck with a problem that stems from inadequate state services for sex offenders.

“This bill is necessary because emergency shelters aren’t really equipped to handle sex offenders,’’ said Peter Duda, executive of the Lowell Transitional Living Center, noting they often end up as long-term residents because it’s difficult to find housing and jobs. “We’re not funded to provide the appropriate supervision. These people should be appropriately tracked, and it shouldn’t fall on the shelters to do that.’’

Officials at other shelters said recent crimes allegedly involving homeless sex offenders - including an assault last month at Massachusetts General Hospital and a break-in last spring at a woman’s apartment in Quincy - have given their shelters a bad name.

Mark Alston-Follansbee, executive director of the Somerville Homeless Coalition, said he worries that a sex offense at his shelter, which is in a church, would result in the program’s closure.

“All it takes would be one offense for our program to be run out of the church, and out of the town,’’ he said. “We’re trying to push back to the state, saying they have to figure this out. It’s their responsibility, and they’re asking us to do something that shelters were never intended to do.’’

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Globe correspondent Michaela Stanelun contributed to this report.