The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Monday, August 3, 2009

Like a Bridge Over Hobbled Squatters

Learning How Our Cities Deal with Sex Offenders and the Homeless May Not “Ease Your Mind”

In even simplistic societies, some individuals inevitably come to live on the fringes, co-existing with others and yet not really accepted members of society proper. In large and sufficiently complex societies, these individuals grow into large groups or communities, with their own subcultures and infrastructures. How society as a whole chooses to deal with these fringe communities often says a lot about its values.

One such group is the homeless. In the United States, New York City has among the largest homeless communities. They have developed a program in recent years that helps deal with the problem by essentially passing it to others.

Since 2007, New York has spent nearly a half million dollars per year on a program that has paid over five hundred families to leave the Big Apple for greener orchards. These families represent a mixture of longtime residents who have fallen on hard times and recent pilgrims who quickly discover New York has more problems and fewer opportunities for them than imagined.

New York utilizes the cheapest method available to transport the families but is not above using international airfare if required. Its most expensive relocation to date involved flying a family to Paris at a cost of over $6,000. So far, the domestic program has returned families to twenty-four states and the international program to five continents. Puerto Rico and the southeastern costal U.S. are the most common destinations.

The justification for the program is purely economic. Even the most expensive moves cost New York less than housing the homeless in expensive shelters, which average $36,000 per year per family.

New York officials insist the program is humane. They point out the removal option is entirely voluntary. Moreover, families must prove they have a relative willing to sponsor/house them in a new location. They point to the zero return rate among those deported as proof the program is meeting a legitimate need.

However, critics contend the program does nothing to address the underlying problems that created homeless families.

“The city is engaged in cosmetics,” says Arnold Cohen, president and chief executive of the Partnership for the Homeless, an advocacy group in New York. “What we’re doing is passing the problem of homelessness to another city. We’re taking people from a shelter bed here to the living room couch of another family. Essentially, the family is still homeless.”

Sex offenders represent another fringe community within society. Traditionally ostracized by neighbors once discovered, voters have become increasingly aggressive about identifying and restricting the movements of such offenders, who are almost exclusively men. The recent passage of Jessica’s Law in states like California, Iowa, and Florida is often causing sex offenders to join the homeless.

Jessica’s Law makes it illegal for convicted sex offenders to reside anywhere from five hundred to twenty-five hundred feet of any school or park, regardless of whether their crimes were against children or adults. Many communities lack any homes, condominiums, apartments, or boarding houses meeting this criterion.

In Miami Florida, sex offenders, lacking any other quarters, took to squatting under the Julia Tuttle Causeway, a busy bridge over Biscayne Bay connecting Miami to Miami Beach. Local officials, initially flummoxed over what to do with them, allowed offenders to live outdoors. They even issued the squatters ID cards that listed beneath the bridge as their official residence.

At the same time, the city sought to hobble offenders – not with shackles or manacles but rules and regulations. The men must stay under the bridge from 10 P.M. to 6 A.M. each night. A parole officer drove out to check on the squatter’s presence regularly. Some offenders wore GPS tracking bracelets but found it difficult to keep them charged due to a lack of power outlets.

What began in 2007 with five regular squatters grew within a year to nineteen squatters. Their numbers reached over fifty by this year. At that point, Miami followed the lead of Fort Lauderdale, which hosted a similar group of squatters under one of its bridges, and ordered the makeshift camp to disperse.

Promised assistance in finding housing never materialized. “We want them to be able to reintegrate into society,” insists a spokesperson for the Florida Corrections Department. “We are hopeful that if we push them, they will be able to find a residence that's better.” Unlike New York, the deportation is neither voluntary nor comfortable but the theme remains the same – leave and make yourself someone else’s problem.

“What the law's doing to us is totally wrong,” says Juan Carlos Martin, one of those forced out. Fifteen potential employers have rejected him because of his record and he cannot find an affordable residence in compliance with the law. “We aren't animals,” he asserts with obvious frustration.

In California, sex offenders are finding it useful to blend into the homeless community. Jessica’s Law often makes finding acceptable housing there equally difficult. However, the large population allows offenders to settle illegally but avoid detection by officially declaring themselves homeless. The fraud not only helps them avoid arrest but also makes it more difficult to ensure they receive the medications and therapy that were conditions of their rehabilitation and parole.

GPS ankle bracelets may alleviate the problem in the future but police there are only now phasing them in volume among the homeless community.

In many cases, sex offenders feel required to skirt authorities, knowing they will receive no sympathy from them. One offender, who lives near Disneyland, said he registered as homeless after his parole officer rejected one potential residence after another.

“I finally asked, ‘Where do you want me to live’? He said, ‘You have a car, don’t you’?” the man reports.

At first glance, it is easy to dismiss the problems of such individuals. Many find themselves in their current positions by choice and/or as the result of poor past choices. Nobody wants an impoverished homeless family living in public housing in their neighborhood. The objection against local sexual offenders is even stronger. Such angst is understandable and even reasonable as we strive to protect our families.

Yet driving sex offenders, including pedophiles, into homeless subcultures is not without risks to innocents. It places homeless children, who are just as naïve and helpless as other children and have fewer advocates and protectors, directly in the path of yet another danger. This should be a heavy burden for anyone of conscience.

More to the point, ignoring subcultures living on the fringe, or even attempting drive them away altogether, also guarantees negative consequences for society as a whole. It takes an already dispossessed and disassociated group of people and places them in increasingly dire and desperate situations. The resulting stresses often transform them from parasitic to increasingly predatory roles, subjecting their prey (i.e. us) to particularly ruthless and nasty treatment.

“This is not an ideal situation for anybody,” fretted one Miami official about the bridge squatters.

“We could potentially be making the world more dangerous rather than less dangerous,” notes therapist Gerry Blasingame, past chairperson of the California Coalition on Sexual Offending.

Economics and other practical considerations often prevent us from offering an idyllic “bridge over trouble waters” to those living on the fringes of society. However, we surely do nothing but harm by constructing bridges to nowhere, as in New York, bridges to squat under wearing hobbles, as in Florida, and bridges back into the mainstream un-rehabilitated, as in California.

Surely, we can build better. Surely, we can be more. In the end, it protects our own, best interests.


MSLGWCEO said...

Miami-Dade: Why Florida’s Causeway-dwelling Former Sex Offenders prefer to stay

TheBell said...

Hi, MSLGWCEO. Yes, when living under a bridge, which none of these men are exactly raving about, beats the system, there is clearly something wrong with the system. Revising the zoning restrictions in some commonsense manner sounds like a good start. Thank you for your reply and link.