Some Arizona sex offenders find housing hope, help
Though he was homeless, Chris tried to maintain a routine. After coffee and small talk, he headed to a nearby Jack in the Box, where he would charge his electronic ankle monitor, then “home” — to a sleeping bag tucked behind a bush near 19th and Dunlap avenues.
Chris, who asked that his last name not be used because he is a convicted sex offender, was homeless for six months after his release from prison. But it was at that coffee shop where he found an unexpected support network in a group of retired police officers who spent their mornings there. One of them was Barry Lane.
Lane invited Chris to a Christmas dinner, even buying him a jean jacket to wear to it. He bought Chris food. He gave him bus tickets. He bought him a mountain bike and a helmet to help him get around.
Taking Lane’s advice, Chris started saving $50 a week and eventually rented his own place.
In short, Lane has been a valuable mentor since Chris, who served time for attempted child molestation, was released from prison in November 2011.
“Having people out here that I could talk to when something was wrong … was a real help,” said Chris, who was smoking a cigarette outside the coffee shop one recent morning. “They make me feel like a normal person.”
For inmates released from prison into homelessness, a support network is crucial in getting them back on their feet and reducing their chances of committing another crime.
For convicted sex offenders like Chris, who face unique hurdles in finding jobs and housing, a support network can be life-changing as they navigate various sex-offender residency and employment restrictions that lower their chances of normalcy.
An Arizona Republic investigation published last December highlighted weaknesses in Arizona’s system of tracking and monitoring high-risk sex offenders and the practice of registering sex offenders in clusters at Phoenix and Tucson street corners. State law requires sex offenders to register to an address or “place of residence.”
As of Aug. 1, there were 5,223 high-risk sex offenders registered statewide, with 221 of those classified homeless and registered to intersections, and 917 with unverified or unknown addresses.
In downtown Phoenix, the 85007 ZIP code still has the highest concentration of homeless sex offenders — around the Human Services Campus that provides services for the homeless people.
Among 314 registered high-risk sex offenders in 85007, 168 were homeless, registered to the shelter on the campus or had unknown or unverified addresses.
Layers of local, county and state residency restrictions severely limit housing options for sex offenders. They often are not allowed back home because there are children around, or they are ostracized by their family.
The stigma of a sexual offense makes landing a job difficult, particularly when poor economic conditions make it difficult even for non-felons to find work. Chris is a Level 1 sex offender, the lowest risk. Information about him is not made public through the state’s sex-offender registry.
Sex offenders are largely viewed as unsympathetic, if not despicable, criminals because of the stigma attached to sex crimes. But social-service experts have raised concerns that rampant homelessness among sex offenders is not conducive to their reintegration into society and could threaten general public safety.
Lane, Chris’ mentor, is president of Arizona Second Chance, a faith-based non-profit created two years ago to provide mentoring for newly released ex-prisoners.
Although there is little momentum for change in policies dealing with sex offenders, recent steps taken by the Arizona Department of Corrections and faith groups like Arizona Second Chance offer a sliver of hope for improvements in the process of reintegrating them.
Though these new reintegration programs are not specifically targeted at sex offenders, the efforts to provide more job and housing resources to newly released inmates can be particularly helpful to them.
Last December, the Corrections Department launched a Tucson pilot program to house newly released prisoners at a correctional facility while they are under community supervision, which typically is during the final 15 percent of their sentence. The facility is a dormitory-style center where people also go for programs or services during the day or live while they get treatment.
The facility houses four types of felons under community supervision: those who violate terms of their supervision and are brought to the facility to finish it; people living there for residential substance-abuse treatment; day-reporting people who receive social services, therapy and job training; and sex offenders who otherwise would be homeless.
It is too early to predict whether corrections officials will replicate the program in Maricopa County. Before expanding on the model, they plan to monitor results of the Tucson program and the financial effects of having the facility.
There also is an effort among some in the local faith community to reach out to prisoners as they are being released. For example, a couple in Apache Junction recently renovated a two-story home to create a dormitory-style residential facility for up to five sex offenders being released from prison.
Prisoners are now initiating their own communications with churches and faith groups that may be willing to help them upon release.
Arizona Second Chance has been forming a network of churches in Greater Phoenix and has started a mentoring program for ex-offenders to help them find jobs and housing. The group is not off-limits to sex offenders, but it has not yet been active in helping them because of the housing restrictions and employment challenges they face.
The Southwest Region Community Corrections Center, once a 144-bed minimum-security women’s prison, was converted to a facility where Pima County offenders complete community supervision. While there, they get help overcoming obstacles as they try to get back on their feet.
Corrections officials believe it will prove to be a money-saver, as well.
Without the center, some offenders otherwise would be arrested again and sent back to prison on technical violations of their supervision, costing the state $65 a day for an average stay of 91 days, said Paul O’Connell, operations director of DOC community corrections.
In fiscal 2012, 2,932 offenders were placed back in custody on technical violations, representing 16 percent of all prison admissions that year, according to the DOC.
Meanwhile, sending inmates to a privately operated treatment facility costs $18,000 per person, O’Connell said.
The 144-bed facility also houses the Tucson parole office, saving the Corrections Department $98,716 in office-leasing costs.
The facility’s living space is simple. Bunks formerly used by prisoners are arranged dormitory-style. Residents bring their own clothes and hygiene items.
Programs are tailored to residents’ special needs. The goal is to balance punishment and rehabilitation, so offenders find stability and are less likely to commit crimes that send them back to prison. They can learn practical skills like managing a budget or writing a resume, and they can receive job training. Group- therapy sessions, anger-management classes and substance-abuse counseling round out the offerings.
There is a common area with a big-screen TV where residents can hang out and watch movies. Residents also have a schedule of chores.
It offers short- and long-term services for offenders, who may stay for up to 90 days to get in-patient or residential drug and alcohol treatment, if needed. The facility also offers short-term housing — sex offenders included.
The average length of stay is 61/2 months, corrections officials said. Sex offenders who otherwise would be homeless can stay at the facility for their entire supervision term.
From December through June, 52 of the 55 offenders placed at the facility for temporary housing because they had no other housing options were sex offenders.
It is an option never before available to sex offenders in Tucson.
When lifted out of survival mode, sex offenders are more likely to focus on themselves, finding a job and rehabilitating. Sex-offender treatment is available at the facility.
The new housing option also eases pressure on Tucson police, who must otherwise regulate more sex offenders sleeping on the streets.
Still, the realities facing sex offenders upon leaving are grim. There are few legal housing options for them when they leave because of city restrictions on where they may live.
“Once they leave here, they’ll likely return to chronic homelessness,” said Nicole Studer, community corrections manager.
Those same systemic challenges persist in Maricopa County.
Convicted sex offenders are not supposed to live at the shelters at downtown Phoenix’s Human Services Campus, though some nonetheless register there for legal purposes if they are homeless. It is unclear how many actually are bedded down there.
Recent enforcement of Phoenix ordinances prohibiting homeless people from sleeping on the streets has forced downtown shelter officials to open a nearby parking lot for the overflow homeless population who don’t want to be or can’t be in the shelters.
Sex offenders previously registered to downtown sidewalks now find themselves camping at that lot, a last resort where homeless men and women can rest overnight while being monitored by police.
“If we continue down the path we are, there will be sex offenders in the parking lot. There’s nowhere else for them to go. At least that’s a spot for them to be, and be safe,” said Mark Holleran, chief executive of the Central Arizona Shelter Services, on the Human Services Campus.
A few people in the Valley faith community have ramped up efforts to take ex-prisoners off the streets.
Arizona Second Chance, the organization to which Lane belongs, has begun working with North Phoenix Baptist Church and Valley View Bible Church to increase fundraising. The group’s connections to prison chaplains and others authorized to minister inside prisons generated 19 applications from prisoners who completed their program, successfully finding work and housing.
The group looks for employers across the Valley willing to hire ex-prisoners, and connect with organizations who can help furnish residences. The groups’ members offer themselves as a resource for ex-prisoners to navigate the world after release. The group, however, has not yet formally accepted sex offenders into its program. It is finding that housing restrictions and employers’ hesitation in hiring them puts up barriers for mentors.
But there are at least three ministries in the Phoenix area quietly singling out sex offenders for help. And there are individual aid initiatives.
For example, the Apache Junction couple are a part of a growing but subtle movement in the faith community to reach out to sex offenders. They declined to be identified, but contacted The Republic after its December report on homeless sex offenders.
“We chose this house because it is very nice and also isolated,” the wife said. It also complied with sex-offender residency restrictions.
Although there are several logistical challenges to work through, the couple are communicating with and vetting sex offenders who have heard about their efforts from inside prison and are writing them letters. The couple recently have been traveling to downtown Phoenix several times a week to meet with a sex offender who has reached out to them for help. They pay his rent, take him food and are helping him find a job. They talk to him almost every day to prod him in his search for work and housing.
Chris, the formerly homeless sex offender, believes Lane and a friend who works at his favorite coffee shop provided the most help since his release from prison.
Lane said reaching out to felons, including sex offenders, is a “win-win situation” for the public and the former prisoners. “If an ex-felon gets a decent job, it means he is paying his or her fair share in taxes, not using tax dollars,” Lane said.
“It took me a long time to figure this out. … In my younger years (as a police officer), I just wanted to book and throw away the key,” Lane said.