Housing the Unwanted
by Jie Jenny Zou and Roger Miller, The New York World
For the next three years of J. Mercado’s life, finding a suitable place to live in New York City will depend entirely on how close the building is to area schools, plus the consent of his parole officer.
Under state law, Mercado, as a paroled sex offender, cannot live within 1,000 feet of schools—making large swaths of Brooklyn off-limits. Parole conditions also prohibit him from fraternizing with other ex-convicts and limit contact to family and friends screened by parole officials.
So when he was finally released from an upstate prison in January, Mercado was confused to find himself living with dozens of sex offenders and other parolees in an illegal rooming house in Flatbush, Brooklyn.
“I don’t even understand the logic—who comes up with this?” said Mercado, who was assigned to a rooming house on Bedford Avenue operated by Horizon Hope Center, which is described in a flier as “safe housing for all who need it, with the comforts of home, and a feeling of close-knit peer support.”
As many as 50 men reside in a converted medical office where doorless units connect in a maze of drywall. Narrow bunk beds infested with bedbugs crowd rooms a few feet wide with posted signs instructing that rent be sent to a postal box by the 10th of every month, “no exceptions.”
Residents share two bathrooms and sign in and out of the building, leaving details of their whereabouts on a clipboard with a housing manager—also a resident with a criminal background and the only one with keys.
“I don’t want to be there,” Mercado said of Horizon Hope. “It’s really just me getting out of there as soon as possible and getting back as late as possible.”
Failure to make nightly curfew at Horizon Hope can trigger a parole violation that lands Mercado back in prison.
Mercado, who was convicted of raping a 12-year-old child in 2011, served three years behind bars plus an additional four months as the state struggled to find him housing. He, and some other offenders, spoke on the condition of partial anonymity for fear of backlash from parole or prospective employers.
State records show at least 19 sex offenders lived at Horizon Hope as of December 2014, even though the rooming house is illegal, according to the city Department of Buildings. The center is located in commercial space that was never approved for residential use.
Clusters of sex offenders living in boarding houses like Horizon Hope, cheap motels and homeless shelters have become common in the decade since New York implemented statewide residency restrictions for many sex offenders under parole supervision. The law, the Sexual Assault Reform Act, or SARA, bars those the state determines pose the highest risk of reoffending, or whose victims were under 18 years old, from living within 1,000 feet of institutions serving children while still on parole.
An analysis of state sex offender registry data by The New York World found at least 15 privately owned residences and 19 homeless shelters across the state housed a minimum of 10 offenders each in December 2014. All told, these 34 facilities housed more than 650 sex offenders as of the end of 2014. In addition, nearly 3,000 other sex offenders were registered at an address with at least one other offender.
For the neighborhoods in which these clusters are located, they can place additional burdens on low-income communities already struggling with high unemployment and poverty rates. And for the offenders living in them, many don’t provide the stable, safe environments research has shown to be critical for successful reentry.
The task of proposing residencies for review ultimately falls to offenders and their families. Parole officers can reject housing for a variety of reasons beyond the 1,000-foot rule, including the criminal history of others residing at the address or the presence of children. In some cases, offenders are forced to live in boarding houses or shelters after proposals to live with spouses or other family members were rejected by the offender’s parole officer for unspecified reasons.
Last year, the state began keeping parolees in prison for months after their scheduled release dates as officials waited for beds to open. At the end of 2014, at least 24 sex offenders were kept in state prisons beyond their release dates.
A spokesperson with the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), which oversees prisons and parole, acknowledged the agency faces “enormous challenges in finding suitable housing given the shortage of affordable housing and laws.” The agency also noted that it houses parolees through a combination of contractual and “non-contractual services” like Horizon Hope—all of which are “closely monitored” by parole officers.
While local police agencies are tasked with keeping sex offenders properly registered with the state, DOCCS officials are responsible for releasing and monitoring them in the community while under state supervision.
Residency laws are “wildly popular” in the U.S. even though researchers have found little evidence that they curb recidivism or deter sex crimes, said Cynthia Calkins, an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice specializing in sex offender issues. “It’s another piece of feel-good legislation that would work if our stereotypical idea of sex offending were true, but it’s not.”
A 2007 statistical study by the Minnesota Department of Corrections found “very little support for the notion that residency restriction laws would lower the incidence of sexual recidivism, particularly among child molesters.”
Rebuking the “stranger danger” stereotype, Calkins said, “most sex crimes are perpetrated against people the offender knows.” Instead, research shows parolees of all criminal backgrounds are less likely to commit another offense when they have stable housing with strong family and community support.
Some law enforcement officials aren’t sold on the efficacy of residency restrictions either. Mark Spawn, a retired police chief from Fulton, New York, and the director of research and training for the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police, said sex offender management should be taken in a “balanced” approach, and he called residency restrictions “politically popular.”
“You want to police them rationally and scientifically, using the best evidence,” said Spawn, who has trained various state and local agencies in sex offender management. “When you start putting up so many obstacles to offenders, it makes it almost impossible to live in any part of the city.”
Spawn called sex offenders “a compliant bunch, by and large,” but added that increasing restrictions may backfire. “When you make it too difficult for them, they’re just going to go off the radar.”
A state statute enacted in 2008 offers conflicting guidance for housing sex offenders on parole supervision. In one section, the statute emphasized that reducing recidivism among sex offenders means helping offenders reintegrate into local communities with “a stable living situation and access to employment and support services.” Officials were also instructed to avoid “ill-advised concentration of sex offenders,” which “may create risks and burdens to the surrounding community.”
But that same document also notes that keeping offenders together in the same location may be preferable as it makes supervision easier for parole officers. It makes no mention of what constitutes a high concentration of sex offenders, or the implications of clustering offenders together.
Parents for Megan’s Law Inc., a Long Island-based victims advocacy group, has been one of the leading voices calling for greater supervision of sex offenders, regardless of parole status. The group declined to respond directly to specific questions, but referred to a February press release that called for a “reasonable” residency restriction that “protects our most vulnerable while not placing an unfair burden on communities resulting from clustering.”
The group noted that while “there is minimal evidence demonstrating that residence restriction laws prevent sexual victimization,” it ultimately favors restrictions because “daily exposure and access to a vulnerable victim pool facilitates the potential for sex offender fantasy to become a heinous reality.”
Legally, sex offenders returning from prison face hurdles unlike any other parolees, including those convicted of murder. “I don’t think there’s anybody in our society that’s more despised than sex offenders,” said Elon Harpaz, a Legal Aid Society attorney who represents offenders kept in prison beyond their scheduled release dates. He said clients remain an average of four to six additional months after they have been granted parole or post-release supervision.
Civil liberty groups and attorneys for offenders argue that the state’s 1,000-foot rule amounts to a virtual “banishment” of sex offenders in New York City by creating exclusion zones that make most addresses off-limits. Harpaz said there’s “virtually nowhere” for sex offenders to live within the five boroughs. “We’re talking about human beings, people who are supposed to be returned to the community.”
Despite the difficulties residency restrictions create and the lack of evidence that they offer any meaningful protection to communities, state legislators continue sponsoring legislation that further restricts where offenders can live.
Since January, state legislators have proposed more than 100 bills involving sex offenders—mostly aimed at restricting residency, movement, and job prospects or expanding supervision and notification protocols. Efforts to enact statewide residency laws for all sex offenders, regardless of parole status, have intensified in light of a recent state Court of Appeals ruling striking down local laws that went beyond state SARA restrictions.
One bill would allow municipalities to block sex offenders from moving into an area “overly concentrated” with them, giving municipalities the option to set the maximum at one offender per address. The proposal was drafted in response to motels near Albany housing numerous sex offenders.
“Our highest priority as elected officials must be to protect the public from harm,” said Assemblyman Jim Tedisco (R-Glenville), the bill’s sponsor. “This legislation aims to better protect honest, hardworking, law-abiding citizens from being preyed upon by the worst-of-the-worst sex offenders, who, in many instances, are living clustered together just steps away from children and families.”
Among the largest clusters in late 2014 were more than 80 offenders living on James Street in downtown Syracuse, spread across four low-income complexes. A two-family home on McBride Street in Far Rockaway reported 23 offenders, despite pending foreclosure. Another two-family residence on Atlantic Avenue in East New York listed 17 offenders.
Offenders such as Mercado ultimately have little say in where officials place them. Parole officials rejected dozens of Mercado’s proposed residences before settling on the Bedford Avenue rooming house.
Little information is available about Horizon Hope, which filed as a nonprofit with the New York State Department of State in 2008, but isn’t registered with the Internal Revenue Service or the state Charities Bureau, as required.
The building, which is in foreclosure, is rife with unpaid city fines and has been cited for broken sewage pipes, mold, and vermin.
But none of these issues deterred DOCCS officials from sending more than $3,200 to Horizon Hope since 2014 to cover “emergency housing of parolees,” according to a DOCCS spokesperson. The agency said it has sent parolees to Horizon Hope since 2012.
One former Horizon Hope resident sued DOCCS under the pseudonym Michael Devine after his parole officer ordered him to live there in early 2014. Devine claimed he was suddenly uprooted from the Brooklyn home he shared for years with his fiancee and their children due to its proximity to a school.
While strapped with an ankle monitor, he was given weeks to find a new address and barred from returning to the home where he lived for several years while on post-release supervision. He won his case and was allowed home in September, but DOCCS is appealing the decision.
Devine—who was convicted of first-degree sexual abuse—declined to speak with The New York World out of fear of retribution from DOCCS in the ongoing case, according to his attorney, Lisa Napoli. She confirmed that DOCCS paid for Devine’s stay at Horizon Hope in early 2014 until a judge released him to his mother’s house in early April.
A DOCCS spokesperson said bedbug claims by Devine in 2014 were “unsubstantiated.” The spokesperson also said that parole officials routinely visit Horizon Hope to investigate any housing complaints, adding that a 2014 site visit “did not suggest any red flag issues” and met “minimal housing standards.”
Thaddeus “Teddy” Okoloh, Horizon Hope founder and operator, faulted building management for any unsafe conditions and denied any wrongdoing. “I’m not doing anything out of the ordinary,” said Okoloh, who claimed a longstanding arrangement with DOCCS officials who inspect the premises annually.
“My relationship with corrections is very clean and clear,” Okoloh said, calling it a “contract” without a time limit. A review of state records found that no such contract exists, but the DOCCS payments to Horizon Hope were addressed to Okoloh.
All those involved with the Bedford property denied responsibility for the illegal use of the space. Frank Rio, a court-appointed attorney managing the property since foreclosure proceedings began in 2009, faulted the management company, BPC Management LLC. BPC directed all inquiries to Rio. Property owner Ezekiel Akande denied any involvement with Horizon Hope or BPC, blaming Rio for any illegal activity.
A lack of adequate housing that complies with SARA restrictions isn’t just a problem in New York City—experts say the problem exists statewide. Many sex offenders upstate are increasingly relegated to the outskirts of town, according to Kelly Socia, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, who specializes in criminal reentry and recidivism.
Socia’s research on sex offenders in upstate New York found they lived disproportionately in census tracts “exhibiting high levels of concentrated disadvantage,” such as high unemployment and poverty. “They’re getting pushed into these very rural neighborhoods,” Socia said, “or they’re pushed into the worst housing.”
Rural clustering can make access to social services and treatment a challenge for offenders, who are usually barred from driving and rely on public transportation.
The Dixie 2000 Hotel in Binghamton was home to at least 24 sex offenders at the end of 2014, including Ross Hopkins, who began living there in 2012. The facility is one of several buildings in the area that cater to low-income residents receiving monthly housing assistance.
The 55-year-old keeps a fly swatter handy for the various bugs that crawl over his mattress. Brushing a small cockroach off his shoulder, he explained how parole officials assigned him to the Dixie 2000 on Henry Street after both of his proposed addresses were rejected while he awaited release from Livingston Correctional Facility.
“Parole officers just told me where I was going,” said Hopkins, who has developed a good relationship with building management despite the ongoing bedbug infestation.
As at Horizon Hope, the owners of the Dixie 2000, Afify Management, never had a contract with DOCCS, but records show the company received more than $25,000 in direct payments to cover emergency housing of parolees. Management disbanded its relationship with the state in 2013 and no longer accepts parolees, citing delayed payments from DOCCS.
Hopkins, who was convicted in 2004 of rape and a criminal sexual act, is on parole until 2016, and living at Dixie is his only housing option. He was designated by a judge as a level 2 offender, meaning he is at moderate risk of repeat offense. Unemployed, he relies on housing assistance, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits and local churches for subsistence. “You end up in a crazy situation,” he said of the time he found himself unable to pay rent last year.
Income insecurity can translate into evictions or homelessness, which can present additional legal troubles for sex offenders on parole supervision. And once the word about Dixie’s sex offender tenants got out, it didn’t take long for local politicians and residents to rally against them. The Binghamton City Council quickly moved to enact location restrictions and notification rules for businesses that served sex offenders.
When residents of South Ozone Park in Queens found out that dozens of registered sex offenders were living in a hotel-turned-homeless shelter, community leaders fumed about the location’s proximity to an elementary school—even though the school is more than 1,000 feet away.
Community Board 10 Chairwoman Betty Braton called the decision to place a high concentration of sex offenders at the shelter without prior warning or input from the community “unconscionable.”
“Our community believes it is reprehensible for the City of New York to place that many registered sex offenders at a single address in a community that’s residential,” said Braton, who attended the announcement in April 2014. “That’s unfair to a community, that’s unfair to the people who live there.”
Their outrage led to action, or so it appeared. Last April, City Councilman Ruben Wills (D-South Jamaica) told community members that offenders were removed from the Skyway Men’s Shelter on South Conduit Avenue in an announcement covered by the Queens Chronicle.
However, the city Department of Homeless Services denied knowledge of the transfer and declined to comment further on the issue. Wills’ office did not return several requests for comment or offer proof that the transfer occurred. The councilman faces multiple unrelated fraud and theft charges.
But even if the transfer took place, it proved to be only temporary. By December, the 174-bed shelter housed at least 59 sex offenders—even more than before. Braton said the shelter abuts a small residential area on the outskirts of John F. Kennedy International Airport. The men often cross a bridge to reach convenience stores, using the same path as children commuting to school.
Due to SARA restrictions, Skyway is one of only a few city shelters available to legally house paroled sex offenders. Sen. Jeffrey D. Klein (D-Bronx/Westchester) has been one of the most fervent voices looking to oust offenders specifically from family shelters and strengthen community notification laws, publishing several legislative reports that have rattled DOCCS officials.
A DOCCS spokesperson wrote that the agency “continues to work with local governments to halt the release” of any SARA-restricted offender to non-compliant shelters and prohibits offenders from residing in family shelters. But Klein released a report in late January where he claimed two offenders were living in a Bronx family shelter.
The agency’s decision to keep offenders behind bars for extended periods can also be traced to Klein’s February 2014 report about offenders living in violation of the 1,000-foot rule, which spawned negative media reports faulting state officials for lax oversight. That same month, DOCCS Commissioner Anthony Annucci circulated an internal memo to top agency administrators announcing a new “pre-release screening policy and procedure” for sex offender inmates “in an effort to move the department in the direction of a more efficient and accurate way to monitor sex offender cases.”
A New York World review of parole and inmate records found at least 24 level 2 and 3 offenders residing in two upstate prisons at the end of 2014. Level 3 offenders are at high risk of repeat offense. But interviews with current offenders and lawyers suggest that figure is much higher since the program expanded to more prisons where offenders are being kept in general population cells and are subject to prison disciplinary actions. Level 1 offenders, who have low risks of reoffending and whose registration status is not made public, are also being held.
Several organizations, including the Legal Aid Society, are discussing a class-action suit against the state since judges have ruled inconsistently on a dozen or so cases contesting extended confinement.
A DOCCS spokesperson countered that offenders have been transferred into residential treatment facilities at several correctional facilities as part of their ongoing rehabilitation and are not inmates. “DOCCS does not in any way seek to hold offenders in prison,” she noted, adding that the offenders “participate in therapeutic programming” and “earn wages to assist with resident development.”
But James Bogin, managing attorney of Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York, said the program keeping sex offenders behind bars isn’t being carried out as intended and is simply more time in prison. “This is not a minor thing, to blur the distinction between incarceration and release,” he said. “They come up with the fiction that these people have been released—it happens to be in a prison where they’re treated as prisoners.”
Nathaniel Flowers, a level 3 sex offender, was slated for release by Thanksgiving 2014, but was instead transferred to a separate dormitory with other sex offenders at Fishkill Correctional Facility. His wife, Dawn Flowers, said officials didn’t provide them with details of how long he would stay, only that he would be put on a waiting list for a vacant bed at an unnamed city shelter.
In the months since he became eligible for parole, nothing has changed in regard to his rights, Dawn Flowers said, including punishment. She said her husband was recently put into solitary confinement after an altercation with another sex offender living in the same dormitory. Nathaniel Flowers now faces up to a year of prison time for violating parole, she said.
While Flowers lived in the dormitory, he worked the same prison job and his visitation rights were that of an inmate. Inmates and staff also quickly identified him and others in the dormitory as sex offenders—making him a visible target for harassment, she said.
“They’re just automatically labeled, and that’s it,” Dawn said of her husband’s registration status after a 2002 conviction of sodomy. “It ruins your life completely.”
Malik Wise, 24, of Far Rockaway, was scheduled for release a week before Flowers, but remained in the same dormitory as Flowers for several months. “I know patience is a virtue, but damn, this is not right,” said Wise, a level 3 sex offender who contacted the World in late January. “I don’t know how long I’m going to be sitting here.”
Wise said his proposed residences of various city shelters were rejected by parole officials, but he waited indefinitely for a shelter bed to open. During weekly meetings with a Poughkeepsie parole officer, he was asked whether he found a valid address. Lacking access to a computer, Wise said it was unclear how he could find suitable housing without outside help.
Wise was released in early March to a Brooklyn shelter housing several other sex offenders in Bushwick.
“We’re being treated like inmates,” said Wise, who was convicted of attempted rape against a child. “There’s nothing different.”
Jill Sanders, an attorney with the Center for Appellate Litigation, said parole officers exercise wide discretion in approving or rejecting addresses, often going beyond the 1,000-foot rule. One of her current clients has proposed more than 60 addresses to date, with the help of family—not DOCCS.
“Statutory provisions and case law say they are supposed to locate employment, vocational programs, treatment and housing,” Sanders said of DOCCS. “How much work is DOCCS doing to find addresses for these guys?”
Sanders said other clients have proposed addresses that appeared to comply with the 1,000-foot rule, only to get rejected for other reasons. One residence was rejected because the building was believed to be a crack house. Another address was denied because an offender’s brother was an ex-convict and would be residing in the same household, according to Sanders.
She said it’s unclear exactly what parole officers are looking for when they inspect proposed addresses in person, which is required for approval. Offenders themselves aren’t provided with written explanations why particular addresses are rejected—Sanders has had to subpoena for the information on behalf of clients.
Luis Garcia, a level 3 offender who was released from Woodbourne Correctional Facility in February, submitted dozens of addresses that were ultimately rejected. He remained in prison for an additional three months past his November release date.
A review of his records shows the address for a Brooklyn shelter, the Eddie Harris Residence on Chauncey Street, was rejected in December. Two months later, when he was finally set to be released, parole officials assigned him to the same address.
When Garcia was officially released, parole officials changed their minds again, first sending him to Queens and then to Wards Island.
“I asked, and they didn’t say anything,” Garcia said of the housing confusion leading to his current shelter assignment. “It’s not a place where a person can live.”
Garcia was convicted twice, in 2000 and 2004, for attempted sodomy and attempted sexual conduct against a child. Given a choice, Garcia said he would stay at his mother’s house in Brooklyn where he visits regularly as he tries to spend most of his time away from the shelter.
But that address was rejected for being too close to a school.
“I can visit, but I can’t live there,” he said.
This article was originally published by The New York World on March 18, 2015; reprinted with permission from the editor.