Exiled Off Main Street

Rural and suburban communities have resisted housing sex offenders. A new program aims to change that.

In 2000, Mike was released from state prison after serving 10 years for sexually assaulting two minors. The 56-year-old felon, who would speak only on the condition that his full name not be used, was convicted of criminal sexual conduct in two separate cases--one involving a male, the other a female, both juveniles. Upon release, he initially searched for housing in Dakota County, where he'd lived prior to being imprisoned.

"I looked everywhere," he recalls. But despite having a well-paying job doing home repairs, he couldn't find any landlord who would accept his money. The primary problem was that, owing to the severity of his crimes, Mike had been designated a "level three" sex offender. This meant that wherever he ended up residing, a community meeting would be held to inform residents of his whereabouts and criminal history. No landlord in the suburbs of Dakota County was willing to endure such public scrutiny. "They're afraid," says Mike. "They're afraid of all the publicity."

After weeks of futile searching, Mike finally found a place to live--in the Phillips neighborhood in south Minneapolis. He moved into a duplex shared by two other sex offenders on 13th Avenue South. There was a park one block away; one of the largest elementary schools in the state was just around the corner.

At the time, Mike and his roommates were hardly the only sex offenders calling Phillips home. The struggling south Minneapolis neighborhood has long been a magnet for such felons. According to the Minnesota Department of Corrections, there are currently 11 level three sex offenders living in or just outside Phillips--the densest cluster of such felons in the state.

There are other neighborhoods in Minneapolis attracting these undesirable residents. There are 51 level three offenders living in the city, or more than half of the state's total. North Minneapolis alone is home to 17 such felons, with roughly half of them living in the Jordan and Willard-Hay neighborhoods.

"I don't have any absolute reason why," says Harley Nelson, deputy commissioner at the Minnesota Department of Corrections, drawing a distinction between the city enclaves and the suburban areas around the metro. "But it is somewhat easier [for offenders] to go into the community and be able to withstand a level three orientation meeting. You don't get quite the volume of people who are upset with them living there [in the city]."

For example, Nelson says that a level three offender recently tried to move into Roseville. Several hundred residents that he describes as "quite hostile" attended the notification meeting. "People were just not wanting to listen," Nelson recalls. The felon, perhaps not surprisingly, ultimately ended up moving elsewhere.

It's because of this disparity that the DOC is now taking steps aimed at reducing the density of sex offenders in the inner city. The agency's 2005-'06 budget contains $1.4 million to provide better housing options for departing prisoners, particularly sex offenders. It's too early to tell exactly how the money will be used, but the chief goal is to ensure that former inmates can find a place to live in their hometowns rather than clustering in the inner city. Funds will be directed to subsidize housing programs in the suburbs and outstate Minnesota, areas that have traditionally been able to avoid such unwanted residents--even those who once lived there. One initial project is a halfway house in Arrowhead, just west of Duluth.

A fearmongering report earlier this month on KSTP-TV (Channel Five) suggested that the DOC money would be used to push sex offenders currently residing in Minneapolis into the suburbs, but Nelson insists that this is not the case. "There is no intention whatsoever to take level three sex offenders out of Minneapolis and move them into the suburbs," he says. "We're not trying to move offenders around with this program."

Of course, there are all sorts of factors in finding a place to live, like peaks and valleys in housing and rental markets. But according to Douglas Spraungel, case supervisor at Alpha House, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit group that counsels sex offenders, the slackening rental market hasn't necessarily made it any easier for sex offenders to locate housing. "Jobs are easier to find compared to housing when it comes to being a sex offender," he says. "The rental market may have gotten easier, but the attitudes against sex offenders have gotten tougher."

Even when sex offenders do find a place to live, they are often the targets of intense animosity from neighbors. According to a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 20 percent of registered sex offenders in Florida reported being forced out of their apartments at one time or another after the landlords became aware of their criminal histories. Roughly a third of the offenders that took part in the study said they'd been threatened or harassed by neighbors.

Similar animosity is likely to be found in Minnesota, especially given the recent high-profile sex crimes that have dominated the news media. The 2003 murder and abduction of 22-year-old college student Dru Sjodin generated headlines for months. More recently, the arrest of convicted sex offender Joseph Edward Duncan on murder and kidnapping charges has horrified the public. Prior to his alleged killing spree, Duncan was released on $15,000 bail by a Becker County judge after being charged with molesting a six-year-old boy.

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