Sex offenders drawn to Phillips community near campus

Often left with nowhere else to go, 13 level-three sexual offenders have relocated just a few miles from the University’s West Bank

K.C. Howard

Not three miles from the University’s West Bank, the largest group of the state’s most dangerous sexual offenders lives in one neighborhood.

Classified as level-three offenders – the state’s ranking for those most likely to reoffend – 13 live in the approximately four-square-mile area.

Paul Weir is one of many residents angry with the Department of Corrections for allowing so many sexual offenders to move into the area.

“There is no way you can prevent landlords who want to load up a neighborhood with level-three sexual offenders,” Weir said.

For every involved party, it is an uneasy coexistence. But many offenders argue they didn’t choose to live in the neighborhood; they just didn’t have anywhere else to go.

While there are clusters of level-three offenders throughout north and south Minneapolis, 35 percent of the city’s 37 level-three offenders reside in the Phillips neighborhood.

“The housing situation is really bad for level-threes because you get forced into living in poor housing and there is not enough of it,” said Alby, a level-three sexual offender living in Phillips, who wihtheld his last name.

Alby spent nine years in Minnesota prisons after he pleaded guilty in 1990 for attempted murder. He was convicted of stabbing and raping a woman.

Alby has since completed the state’s intensive supervision program and a series of treatment courses for his drug addictions.

Despite his attempts to begin a normal life, he said the state’s lack of resources for re-entering offenders hindered his recovery.

He left Stillwater Prison in February 1999. After spending five months in a halfway house and 12 weeks in an after-care program, he said the stress of finding a job and a permanent address in the county-imposed time limit led to a relapse of drug use.

“It’s hard,” Alby said. “A lot of people won’t rent to level-threes. I was under a lot of stress.”

Alby recovered at another community treatment center. He now lives in the Phillips neighborhood and works at a temporary employment agency. He said the state did nothing but provide him with a parole officer, who was more helpful than he was required to be.

Hopscotch

corrections department officials say budget pressures and staffing deficiencies leave them with few options to keep sex offenders from crowding into the same neighborhoods.

“They end up where other low-income transients and unwanteds are located,” said Stephen Huot, director of the correction department’s Sex Offender and Chemical Dependency Services. “It is their responsibility to find a place to live.”

During the first year of probation, level-three offenders receive the strongest supervision, dubbed “intensive supervised release.”

The agents are required to visit their clients four times per week, face to face. Every offender must also take some type of treatment class, which usually requires meeting once per week for a few hours.

Agents are not responsible for finding housing or jobs but must approve both.

However, they rarely fail to approve felons’ housing choices, said Russ Stricter, supervisor of Hennepin County’s intensive supervised release.

“It’s not like we can hold them in the institution. We may have to approve a place we wouldn’t chose to approve if we had alternatives,” Stricter said.

“The Department of Corrections doesn’t want to be in the housing business and doesn’t have the resources to provide that kind of housing, but no one seems to have taken on that obligation,” Stricter said.

So offenders like Alby tend to stick together in neighborhoods with landlords who will rent to them despite their criminal background.

“The rent is usually higher for level-threes because no one wants to rent to them,” Stricter said.

And agents must watch as offenders live with other offenders, sometimes close to schools and day-care centers.

Many agents and clients have compared the current system to hopscotch: they jump from private to nonprofit organizations searching for jobs and housing resources with no direction from the state, they said.

Most of the state corrections funds appropriated over the last three years were earmarked for improving the community-notification processes or reducing parole officers’ case loads. But little to nothing has been allocated to help offenders find housing or jobs once out of prison.

For now, some of these issues will be addressed by a $2 million federal grant which was awarded in July. The grant will bolster Hennepin County organizations offering services to sexual offenders.

“The whole purpose is to protect the community. It’s not to make the offenders more comfortable necessarily,” said Dan O’Brian, assistant to the corrections department commissioner.

Comunity resignation

since 1999, Rep. Joe Mullery, DFL-Minneapolis, has unsuccessfully tried to pass legislation that would prohibit offenders from living within 1,500 feet of schools and each other.

“If these people are dangerous enough for the state to say that you should be notified that they’re living near you and you better watch out for them, to concentrate them in a couple of areas does not seem proper to me,” said Mullery, who represents the Phillips neighborhood.

But Huot argued Mullery’s legislation would prevent offenders from living in the city.

“There are probably 900 schools in Minneapolis,” Huot said. “I don’t know how rural Minnesotans are going to like it if all the offenders have to move to rural Minnesota.”

Twenty-eight percent of the state’s 130 level-threes live in Minneapolis, compared with 8 percent in St. Paul.

Besides Rochester, where four level-three sexual offenders live, no other Minnesota city has more than one.

Phillips residents like Weir have grown accustomed to seeing fliers stuffed in their mailboxes or posted on trees warning of another level-three moving to the neighborhood.

But few go to the community meetings anymore, where Minneapolis police inform residents about what the offender has done, how he’s being supervised and where he’s moving in the neighborhood.

“It’s resignation, not reconciliation,” Weir said. “The apathy is a direct response to a feeling of helplessness.”

St. Paul social worker Mike Davis’ two properties in the Phillips neighborhood provide homes for 12 felons – some of them sexual offenders – who would otherwise turn to halfway houses and nonprofit treatment centers.

“I see a need and I fill that need,” said Davis, whose rentals start at $400 per month for one room in a house. “It’s basic survival skills. You need housing. Some people want to change and they need the chance to make that change and prove what they can do.”

From the outside, Davis’ property on the 2600 block of 13th Avenue South fits in the neighborhood well with its mustard-yellow siding and neatly hung green shutters.

But the tenants – four felons and two level-three sex offenders – don’t often mix with the other residents.

“These guys are selling their house because they don’t want to live here,” Alby said, pointing to his neighbors.

A block north of the home is Stewart Park, where children can be found skateboarding on fall afternoons.

A block and a half northwest of the house stands Hans Christian Andersen Elementary School, one of the largest schools in the state. And three blocks north of the felons’ home is the Abbott Children’s Hospital.

“Kids coming to school from all directions pass right by that house,” Weir said. “I just think that the law should not unduly put in jeopardy kids in a neighborhood where you have a park and a school within 300 feet.”

But Davis said the level-threes are some of the best tenants he has.

“The drug offenders are the real problems,” he said.

For the 450 sexual offenders of varying risk coming out of Minnesota prisons each year, rooms in Davis’ five properties are highly sought. There is always a waiting list.

“(Davis) definitely provides a need for some very hard-to-place offenders,” Stricter said.

But Davis’ debut was not welcome in the neighborhood.

This was especially true after Darnell Smith, a registered sex offender living in Davis’ 13th Avenue property, was arrested last September for the murder of 20-year-old Bobby Holder.

Smith was convicted in March and sentenced to life in prison without parole after he shot and killed Holder inside the duplex.

While Davis said he does his best to make sure his tenants stay out of trouble, residents like Weir say there is little the landlord could do to ease fears. They want the state to disperse felons equitably throughout Minnesota – or at least Minneapolis.

“I’d be the last to deny they have to have a place to live. They need to be able to get to their jobs and they have their civil rights,” Weir said. “But no matter how well your controls are in place, something is always going to happen. And it’s always after the fact.”


K.C. Howard welcomes comments at [email protected]