Getting homeless sex offenders off the streets
When Mark Sullivan found his roommate, Aquila “Bud” Albertson, grasping onto their refrigerator door, clearly in pain, Sullivan said the 94-year-old needed medical attention, but Albertson tried to downplay it.
The roommates both knew Albertson wasn’t getting the medical care he needed daily. It was left to Sullivan to feed him, give him his glaucoma medicine and clean his sheets when he had accidents.
But even Sullivan, 58, couldn’t provide around-the-clock care. He only found Albertson that day because he was given the day off from his job at a West Palm Beach call center.
Only months after Albertson died, Sullivan thought that the lack of care might have been because of his criminal history. Both men are registered sex offenders.
“He had his issues, like we all do, but he did not deserve to live there and waste away like that,” Sullivan said. “It angers me that maybe he slipped through the cracks as a sex offender.”
Albertson is among a growing number of elderly sex offenders in Florida. People on Florida’s list of 73,000 registered offenders who are 65 and older jumped 2 percentage points between 2015 and 2016, according to the state’s legislative auditors, the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability. Florida’s registry has about 10,200 elderly offenders.
The problem is sparking a national crisis of social and justice policy: How and where do we allow the most-reviled class of citizens to survive their silver years — especially those with serious age-related medical problems — after they have served their prison terms, while striving to protect children who may be living nearby?
Offenders who need care struggle to find help when their families reject them for their crimes, like Albertson’s did, or live within 1,000 feet of schools or parks, as the state’s sex offender laws restrict.
In addition, within Florida, counties and cities have different rules limiting where offenders can live. As of November 2018, there were 166 local residence restrictions, according to the state. Miami-Dade and Broward counties are considered among the most restrictive. Both have a 2,500-foot residency restriction, which is less than half a mile.
Living at home isn’t always an option for offenders, either. Sullivan’s last home before going to prison for inappropriately touching neighborhood kids was blocks from a Boynton Beach school. When offenders’ families are unable to move from areas near school or parks, offenders seek housing elsewhere.
For some residency restriction advocates, any risk that a sex offender might lapse back into criminal behavior is too high. Ron Book, a former legislator, lobbied for Florida’s restrictions after his daughter Lauren Book, who is now a state senator, was assaulted by her nanny in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Miami-Dade’s residency ordinance is named after Lauren Book.
He said he has met elderly offenders and is aware of cases when they committed new crimes. He does not think the state should change laws to account for the aging offender population.
“Sex crimes are sex crimes,” he said. “Doesn’t matter if they’re 18 or 98.”
Researchers have found that the chance of recidivism decreases by half every five years an offender is out of prison, said Jill Levenson, professor of social work at Barry University and an expert in sex offender treatment and policy.
Registrants remain on the registry for life, meaning a young offender will continue to face the same restrictions upon aging into his or her senior years.
When asked if parole officers had noticed an aging population, Miami-Dade Police responded with a written statement: “The registration requirement would carry them through their elder years. Being classified as a sexual offender or predator can have a bearing on where they live, work, visit or their chosen educational path.”
Gail Colleta, an advocate for sex offenders, has asked lawmakers to consider lifting the state’s residency restrictions if an offender is a certain age or has ailments.
“This is a humanity issue,” said Colleta, president of Florida Action Committee. “We’re more concerned about stray animals than we are about people with issues, that need to have medication, that need to have oxygen, that are just human beings.”
This idea was also brought up at the last sex offender subcommittee meeting of Palm Beach County’s Reentry Task Force, said Nicole Bishop, the county’s director of justice services.
Bishop stressed the discussion was limited to offenders who are too ill or disabled “to pose a danger to society.”
Residency restrictions are the most common hurdle for offenders searching for housing, with unwilling property managers a close second reason, according to sheriff’s offices’ responses in the state’s accountability office survey. Both contribute to the growth of enclave communities where offenders live together, usually in mobile home parks.
There are no known, comprehensive lists of communities or neighborhoods that accept sex offenders. Some in Florida include a St. Petersburg trailer park that was the subject of a 2016 documentary called “Pervert Park.”
Sullivan and Albertson found housing in a community for sex offenders in rural Pahokee in Palm Beach County. The community, Restoration Destination, may be one of the largest in the state, with about 100 duplex units and 120 residents.
Many of Restoration Destination’s residents have families in South Florida they can’t live with because their homes are near schools or parks, so Pahokee is the closest option for them, said Ted Rodarm, the manager of the community.
While Restoration Destination just had two vacancies, Rodarm expects those to fill within 45 days. Rodarm said there’s “a pipeline of applications.” Sex offenders in Florida must already have an address they will live at before they can leave prison.
Finding housing is considered one of the biggest barriers for sex offenders recently released from prison. Federal rental assistance in public housing is not available to sex offenders.
Many offenders have Social Security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid. Some get financial help from family or friends. Few have jobs.
At Restoration Destination, rent is $550 a month including utilities. Every apartment is fully furnished, from pots and pans to bathmats. New residents even get a set of toiletries and snacks to start off with.
“Many of the guys we get coming straight out of prison often have nothing more than the clothes they’re wearing,” Rodarm said.
Rodarm said that if he didn’t provide this option for offenders, he expects some would be left on the street.
While only six percent of sex offenders are homeless in the state, Miami-Dade and Broward have higher rates of homelessness than the state average. Miami Police said more than a quarter of the offenders living in the county are homeless.
Only 4 percent of nearly one million housing options in Miami-Dade were compliant with the overlapping state and local restrictions in 2009, according to a paper Levenson co-authored on homeless sex offenders. Of those, one percent cost less than $1,250 a month. Levenson also cited a study by Broward County Commission in 2009 that found a 200-foot increase in residency restrictions from the state requirement decreased housing options by 40 percent in the county.
Book, who helped implement residency restrictions, said two factors cause greater setbacks for offenders seeking housing than buffer zones: landlords who don’t tolerate criminal histories and unemployment.
However, Book said there are options for offenders who are in need. Book chairs Miami-Dade’s Homeless Trust and visits encampments to convince the homeless, including offenders, to find alternatives to living on the street.
He hands out flyers — in English, Spanish and Creole — on how to apply for rent assistance. Preference is given to vulnerable homeless people, meaning those with physical or mental impairments, he said.
According to Book, a “handful” of offenders have taken him and the Trust up on assistance in the past year, but Book could not quantify what a handful is. Counting is difficult because some applicants give up on finding housing and others can’t keep a steady income once rental assistance runs out, he said.
Offenders without a permanent address are required by state law to re-register every three days.
The three-day requirement can be a burden for offenders with mobility or mental deficits. One of several offenders who sued Miami-Dade County in 2018 was diagnosed with cognitive impairments and missed his deadline to register by a day, according to Valerie Jonas, one of the attorneys on the case. At the time, the 74-year-old was sleeping on a concrete slab near the intersection of Northwest 36th Court and 71st Street in Hialeah.
“Our jails and prisons are filled with registrants who committed technical violations of probation because they didn’t have a place to live,” Jonas said.
A federal judge dismissed the suit against the county but noted the physically disabled plaintiffs could potentially argue the ordinance is punitive given their health conditions. The case is now in appeals. The county attorney’s office declined to comment for this story, citing a policy not to discuss pending litigation. The county commission office referred questions to the Homeless Trust.
At least one of the plaintiffs is eligible for assistance from the Trust, Book said. That plaintiff and other offenders living on Miami’s streets do so by choice, he said.
“A vast majority of these folks never went and looked [for housing] in the first place. They won’t even take an address that’s handed to them,” he said. “They say, ‘Nah, I don’t want it. I’m OK living on the streets.”
Hundreds of homeless offenders have drifted over the years across Miami-Dade County. In 2010, after an encampment of offenders under the Julia Tuttle Causeway was disbanded, many moved to the Shorecrest neighborhood. Some found rentals while others lived on the street. Two years later, a pocket park was built in the neighborhood, and offenders were forced to leave.
Nearly 100 offenders who moved into or near River Park Mobile Home Park, at 2260 NW 27th Ave., were evicted again in 2013 when the area was considered not compliant as it was near Miami Bridge Youth and Family Services. Parole officers recommended offenders move to the Hialeah encampment, according to the lawsuit’s complaint.
The same offender who missed his registration deadline is also in a wheelchair. Homeless offenders with mobility issues can struggle with basics like finding a bathroom. That offender relied on others to take him to the Walmart nearby to use the store’s restrooms.
While some offenders are able to return to their families’ homes during the day, due to a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew enforced by the state, they must return to the streets at night, unable to receive nightly assistance.
Assisted living homes
For offenders who can’t live without assistance, nursing or retirement homes are not a guarantee. Even if the retirement home isn’t within 1,000 feet of schools and parks, managers of nursing homes often reject elderly felons.
The state policy for long-term care homes is this: Management can choose to accept or reject applicants.
Privately owned assisted living homes have reasons for rejecting offenders. They may be financially responsible for lawsuits if a resident is assaulted by another resident with a criminal history. A Pennsylvania nursing home agreed to pay $6.75 million in damages to the estate of a resident who was assaulted there. The home knew the resident who assaulted her was a registered offender.
Brookdale, a national senior living company with dozens of Florida locations, determines if it accepts residents with criminal histories on a case-by-case basis. Factors Brookdale management considers include “the vulnerability of the other residents and visitors at the community,” Heather Hunter, a Brookdale spokeswoman, said.
Assisted-living homes may also face reputational damage and lose other prospective clients if their commercial addresses show up on sex-offender registries.
Although Restoration Destination’s staff of three is not equipped to deal with the increasing need for medical services, Rodarm said elderly residents’ roommates have helped when they can.
When Sullivan found another housing option closer to his work, he turned it down, thinking the elderly offenders at Restoration Destination need his help. Since Albertson died, Sullivan has started taking care of a neighbor named Kenny and plans to continue living in the Pahokee community “as long as there are Kennys here,” he said.
As for himself, Sullivan doesn’t know where he will find health care when he ages but prays for another, younger offender to care for him.
“I would hope that there was a me there for me when I get there,” he said.