Editorial: Community Notification Laws Puts Strain on Ohio Shelters

         The state of Ohio jumped into the frenzy over passing a community notification law with regard to felons of a sexually based crime. These so-called “Megan’s Laws” swept the country in the face of a few high profile abductions of young children. These fashionable laws were exactly what communities wanted at that moment: their elected officials reacting to a perceived problem with sweeping tough legislation. The problem was that very few people thought about the consequences of these laws.

         The immediate consequences are that neighborhoods object to sexually based criminals from coming into their neighborhood. Neighbors call their city council, the police and generally harass offenders and predators so that they are forced to move. Landlords also refuse to rent to sexually based criminals. So the individuals who paid their debt to society and are released from prison have no where to turn to live except the shelters or flop houses. Now, with the absence of state policy with regard to sexual predators, shelters are also balking at housing predators.

         Community notification is critical to providing a neighborhood piece of mind, but the notification creates as many problem as it solves. The State of Ohio has done a horrible job implementing this law, and the Department of Corrections does not intend to publish guidelines about Megan’s Law until at least 2005.

         So now we have men who served their time for the most horrendous crimes released and labeled as predators and thus shunned by nearly every neighborhood in the region. Neighbors call police, elected officials, the media, and even harass the individual with the sexually based offense directly. So the mostly men turn to the shelters to stay alive and live in peace. Now, we find shelters throughout Ohio are beginning to turn predators away at the door. In Columbus, the publicly funded shelters have turned their backs on their role in the community. Even the shelters that serve only men will turn people with a sexually based crime in their background away even though they pose no threat to the population of the shelter. Because of a foolish “Good Neighbor” policy signed by the shelters, they do not want to be bad neighbors and therefore turn the men away to fend for themselves on the streets. How this could be considered a good neighbor to force guys labeled predators to walk the streets is a mystery?

         The result is that in Columbus all the sexual predators in the City of Columbus go to the one privately funded shelter or wander the streets. The authorities studied the issue for months and came to the conclusion that shelters do not have the staff or facility to handle sexual predators. This is all just spin for the real reason which is that shelters have enough problems with misconceptions of neighbors about homeless people let alone complicating the matter by adding predators. Using the shelter logic from Columbus, shelters should turn away people with AIDS, mental illness, alcohol or drug addiction, and all felons, because truth be told they do not have the staff or facility to handle the broad cross section of the problems facing people with disabilities. Or to take it to the next step we should close down the hunger centers because of poor funding these agencies and churches have no possibility of serving the number of people in need of food.

         In Cincinnati, Dayton, and Cleveland shelters are struggling with what to do about predators. Answers range from denying the problem, attempting to work out a compromise to balance community and shelter needs, to the don’t ask—don’t tell policy followed in most of Cleveland. This problem will continue to plague the shelters until a policy is developed.

         What happened to the shelters opening their arms to those in need as a respite from life on the streets? What happened to the concept that shelters serve those that society has turned their back on? When did working in shelters become some gatekeeper role in serving only the easiest with the greatest chance for success. Shelters were put in place so that even if our society does not recognize a right to housing at least we do not want people dying on the streets in the cold or heat. Now, if we are losing that concept that what purpose do they actually serve?

         The Grapevine editors call for an end to public funding of the shelters. If they want to pick and choose who enters then we should take all the public money away from the shelters. If the shelters want to turn away predators so that neighbors to the shelter feel safe while the neighbors down the street where the predator takes up residence in the bushes feels terrified then they should find private funding. If this is a private undertaking then the shelter will have a right to pick and choose which people with a brain disorder they will serve. If their religious or spiritual beliefs makes it impossible to serve predators then they should find funding from the religious sector.

         Our state leaders foolishly passed a law without thinking of the consequences, and now our shelters are making a bad situation worse. There are consequences for these decisions made by the shelters. When a predator dies on the streets in Columbus will the shelters take responsibility? Will the shelters feel the least guilt if a homeless man living on the streets abducts a child? Of course not. Shelters in our state are usually above criticism and insolated from responsibility.

         The worst part of this sad saga is that the state homeless coalition refused to even take a position on this issue. Despite the fact that this is a state law, and there are struggles going on everywhere in the state the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio refused to even vote on a position statement. The provider dominated state homeless coalition refused to even debate a position statement out of some fear for the image of the Coalition. While the state officials have run away from the predator problem with extreme speed, it is amazing that the state’s only homeless advocacy organization would weigh in with an opinion. The institutionalization of shelters from a temporary band aid to a permanent solution in response to a lack of affordable housing has skewered the thinking of the shelter providers. Instead of thinking of their facilities as a short term movement of people facing an emergency to now a long term housing option for a segment of the population unable to sign a lease or convince a landlord to provide housing.

Copyright for the Homeless Grapevine Cleveland Ohio published April 2003 Issue 60