With the arrival of true winter weather and sub-freezing temperatures, especially in the northern and upper Atlantic coast states, stories are emerging about shelters being opened or expanding their services to accommodate the increased number of homeless people seeking a place to spend the night.
An extremely disturbing fact is woven into these reports, and it is one that civil rights and advocacy organizations such as National Reform Sex Offender Laws, Inc. strongly protests. It is being noticed and protested in advocacy blogs and posts.
Whether due to jurisdictional expectations, state or local legislation, or organizational rules, many of these shelters turn away a segment of the homeless society that is as much if not more in need of their services than any other segment. And they are targeted for exclusion based solely on their being in a broad category of people who have absolutely nothing in common other than that they are required to be registered as sex offenders.
A spokesperson at the True Vine Ministries shelter in Fayetteville, North Carolina who wishes to remain anonymous confirms that this is their policy and that no other category of citizen is excluded as a group. Additionally, Archie Ford, director of a homeless service organization in Sangamon County, Illinois, said that as far as he knows, none of their shelters will accept registered citizens. This is supported by a petition filed with the Illinois Supreme Court concerning released sex offenders who cannot find housing and the resulting consequences of them being returned to prison to serve their parole. According to Kim Campbell with the McLean County Public Defender’s Office, “We have no transitional housing here and the shelters won’t take sex offenders.”
Now a New York city councilman wants a ban in place prohibiting registered citizens from seeking shelter in any of New York’s family shelters. In Suffolk, Virginia, a city-wide initiative to provide shelter for the homeless during the winter months includes this as part of their public notification: “Names are also run through the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Website.” They do not speak further on this, but past experiences have shown only one reason to identify registrants, and that is to exclude them.
In Jackson County, North Carolina, even shelters not operational yet but still being planned make this automatic exclusion of those on the registry a prerequisite.
Obviously, for many shelters, the rules are simple; you are welcome unless you have previously caused a serious problem while a guest with them OR unless you are a registered sex offender. If you are on the registry, you don’t get in, and this is based on nothing but being part of a group who are as totally diverse in deeds and character as it is possible to be. Most had a single offense, many fifteen and twenty and even thirty years ago. Some of the offenses were misdemeanors. Many of the offenses were statutory. Most were non-violent. Many were non-contact. Some were not even sexually related. Some—some studies suggest up to a third—were committed when the offender was a child or a minor. A significant number are due to false accusations and wrongful convictions. And some were very serious offenses such as rape and child molestation.
On the other hand, no screening is done for convicted murderers, or drug dealers, or arsonists, or persons who have committed violent, non-sexual assaults. These too are very serious offenses. These individuals are all given the opportunity to exhibit proper behavior and will be welcome as long as they do so. The re-offense rate for all of these types of crime—with the exception of murder—is much, much higher than that for repeating a sexual offense. Why are registrants not extended the same “Behave, you stay; misbehave, you’re out” treatment?
The fact is that individuals are not excluded from shelters, just as they are not excluded from any aspect of life or social services once they have served their sentences, based on their crimes. They are excluded based on their names being in a public, searchable sex-offender database.
The fact is that most sexual crime—as high as 96%–is committed by those who are not on the registry.  Thus, a shelter will, in excluding registrants, exclude those who will commit only a tiny percentage of tomorrow’s sexual offenses. Furthermore, some who have committed serious sexual offenses have managed to work out “sweetheart” deals that keep them off the registry. They would enter a shelter with no impediment, rendering the entire procedure an exercise in futility.
This inflated fear of and preoccupation with sexual assault recently caused a shelter to refuse entry to a fifteen-year-old young man who was with his family. The family was welcome; he was not. The shelter’s reasoning was that if they put him in the men’s quarters, someone there could sexually assault him, and if they put him in the women and children’s quarters, he could sexually assault someone there. He had no history of ever committing such a crime, but—he could!
RSOL reiterates its strong condemnation of the practice of excluding registrants for no reason other than that, at sometime in the past, they were convicted of an offense that required them to be placed on a sex offender registry. This practice of continuing to punish this classification of crime, and no other, years after the court-ordered punishment has ended must stop. There is no public safety benefit in this practice, and registrants’ lives are placed in jeopardy every day because of it.
(1) Sandler J, Freeman NJ, Socia KM.Does a watched pot boil? A time-series analysis of New York State’s sex offender registration and notification law. Psychol Public Policy Law 2008;14(4):284–302.