By Riley Vetterkind . . . Michael walked out of the Oshkosh Correctional Institution in April 2017 at age 60 with $140 to his name, a record as a sex offender and a GPS monitoring bracelet strapped to his ankle.
Michael, who requested that only his middle name be used to avoid public attention, was convicted of two child sex crimes, the most recent in 2006, for which he spent 10 years in prison. Upon release, he traveled to Vernon County, where he had committed his most recent sex crime, and stayed in a Westby motel while he searched for permanent housing. His probation officer gave him a few months to find a place.
The housing search ended in failure. Michael, who is disabled and relies on Social Security, was unable to navigate the process with residency restrictions and landlords leery of renting to sex offenders.
His search was further complicated by Wisconsin’s requirement that he reside at least initially in Vernon County, where he was convicted, along with DOC rules of supervision that attempt to prevent serious sex offenders from living too close to one another.
He continued his search, but came up empty handed, and so like many sex offenders, he became homeless.
“I had to borrow a tent from my sister, go down to a campsite and live in a tent,” Michael told a reporter for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, adding in a later interview. “This is all happening so fast for me. I can’t imagine being homeless at my age.”
Michael spent the summer and early fall of 2017 at a $10-per-night campsite at the Vernon County Fairgrounds learning to manage his new transient existence. A couple of times a day, he plugged his GPS monitor into an outlet meant for trailer hookups. He said wearing the bracelet is “shameful, and it does hurt my ankle.”
Ten percent of monitored offenders homeless
DOC data show that of the 1,258 offenders on GPS monitoring in January, 131 had no permanent place to live. This means about one in 10 offenders may not have regular or easy access to an outlet to charge a monitoring device. A DOC spokesman said agents typically allow homeless offenders to charge their bracelets in parole offices.
DOC records show some homeless offenders avoid this logistical challenge by absconding — removing their bracelets or letting them run out of power — which completely defeats the purpose of GPS monitoring.
Michael’s struggle to find housing illustrates a problem that is widespread in Wisconsin communities, where dozens of sex offenders are homeless due in part to ordinances restricting where they can live.
DOC officials have acknowledged that highly restrictive municipal residency ordinances in more than 150 Wisconsin communities such as Green Bay and until recently, Milwaukee, are contributing to the problem, according to emails obtained by the Center under the public records la . These local laws prevent sex offenders from residing too closely to places including parks, schools and day-care centers, leaving virtually nowhere for them to live.
Green Bay’s requirement that offenders live at least 1,500 feet away from schools, parks and day-care centers means offenders are banned from nearly the entire city, although they have the opportunity to appeal in front of a board.
In a recent ruling from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, a judge essentially struck down the village of Pleasant Prairie’s 3,000-foot buffer zone as being too restrictive, saying 90 percent of the village was off-limits to child sex offenders and the remaining land was largely nonresidential.
Some municipalities have pre-empted legal action. Waukesha and New Berlin, for example, reduced child safety zones from 1,500 to 500 feet.
The attorneys in the Pleasant Prairie case, Mark Weinberg and Adele Nicholas, are also representing 11 registered sex offenders in a case that ended the 2,000-foot residency restriction in the city of Milwaukee, where sex offenders, some on GPS monitoring, are homeless.