by Kevin E. Cleary
Sexual offenders face a number of barriers to gainful employment and housing once they have served their time, and many more are in danger of becoming homeless as a result. This poses a number of problems for the individuals themselves, the community at large, law enforcement, and homeless shelters, which must balance a variety of sensitive issues while serving their mission.
The Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Office registry of Sexually Based Offenders shows that there are nearly 100 registered sexually based offenders who list 2100 Lakeside Ave., the area’s largest homeless men’s shelter, as their primary address. 2100 Lakeside provides shelter for up to 550 men per night, meaning that roughly 1/6 of 2100’s clientele are sexually based offenders.
Sgt. David Synkowski of the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Office states “it involves a lot more work” to track homeless sexually based offenders, but that shelters and programs such as 2100 fully comply with registration and reporting requirements.
These requirements occupy a gray area in that there are currently no criminal penalties for violating the distance requirements (living within 1000 feet of a school), unless the offender is doing so in direct violation of his or her parole conditions, according to Synkowski.
However, it is technically against the law for a sexually based offender to live within these distances, which are measured by property lines. Synkowski states that the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Office does a great deal to ensure that offenders do not unintentionally violate the law. When individuals come into the office to register, they fill out a questionnaire, notify the department of their address, or new address, register their motor vehicle, and inform the department of their place of employment. The most serious offenders, labeled sexual predators, must do this every 90 days.
Synkowski states that Cuyahoga County crosschecks this information to ensure that the individual is not in violation, and asks them to sign papers stating that they have been notified of this law. Within 3 days to a week, a team is dispatched to verify the information the individual provided.
The myriad issues surrounding sexually based offenders and their ability to co-exist within various communities have proven difficult in more places than just Cuyahoga County. Organizations such as the National Coalition for the Homeless place a large part of the blame on government for the inherent chaos and confusion in dealing with these concerns, the burden of which is often shouldered by homeless shelters.
According to NCH’s Policy on Sexually Based Offenders Within the Shelters, “The reality is that there is a lack of discharge planning for people exiting the criminal justice system especially with regard to people convicted of sexually based crimes or violent crimes.”
Brian Davis, an NCH Board member from Cleveland said, “It is unfortunate that the legislators did not devise a strategy for housing sexually based offenders when they pass Megan’s Law, but we certainly are thankful that many shelters open their doors to all who are in need.”
Many feared this problem would worsen with Ohio’s House Bill 473 taking effect earlier this year. The law was changed to allow prosecutors and law directors to sue to evict sex offenders whose residence violated the distance requirements through a process known as injunctive relief. Previously, only landlords, neighbors, and school districts had the ability to bring actions against those violating the law. Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro recently defended challenges to the new law in court against claims the law was unconstitutional, citing the need to protect children from potential harm.
According to Synkowski, there has not yet been an increase in the number of homeless sex offenders since the law was passed: “No, I have not seen an increase, at least in Cuyahoga County.”
The issue continues to remain difficult. Those charged with sheltering sexually based offenders risk losing support in their communities if they accept offenders into their shelters. According to an Editorial in Issue 60 of The Homeless Grapevine, publicly funded shelters in Columbus were forced to sign “good neighbor policies” which prohibited them from sheltering sexually based offenders. This had the unintentional side effect of unobserved sexually based offenders roaming the streets for lack of a place to sleep.
Davis says that most shelters do not want the responsibility of housing predators, but claimed that “the community is better off if they are in shelter than on the streets.”
Synkowski states that 2100 Lakeside is within 1000 feet of a school, but since it is a temporary shelter rather than a permanent residence no attempts at filing for injunctive relief have been made. Michael Sering, Director of Housing and Shelter for Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry, the organization that manages 2100 Lakeside, indicates that the shelter has a positive effect for the individuals and the community at large.
“There are people with sexual offenses that live or pass through many communities, and ours is no different,” says Sering. “People with these offenses would benefit from programs and services to address their varied issues, and for the benefit of the community and the individuals we applaud any efforts to increase such programming.”
Copyright Homeless Grapevine and the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, Cleveland Ohio October 2005, Issue 73.