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Sex Offenders in Homeless Shelter? It's a Scare Tactic

Helen Ubiñas

November 19, 2009

Anybody want to own the hair-on-fire statistic that 50 percent of the homeless men who will use the no-freeze emergency shelter proposed for downtown Hartford are sex offenders?


I tried to track down who floated that idea. But so far, no takers.

Not our number, said Mike Zaleski, head of the downtown business improvement district.

His recollection: It came from city staffers during a conversation about the impact a shelter at Center Church might have on downtown residents and businesses.

Really not sure, the city's chief operating officer, David Panagore, said when I asked him the source of the number. Later, he said his staffers merely told residents and business owners that based on a one month survey of one city shelter there was a possibility that a portion of the homeless men at the emergency shelter would be sex offenders.

If that's really the case, something clearly was lost in the translation because that alarming stat even made it's way into hysterical e-mails from residents who couldn't believe anyone would consider "a facility which the City estimates will be 50% percent utilized by registered sex offenders."

Truth is, I dismissed the figure at first. I was more interested in dealing with the claims that putting a shelter in the heart of downtown would somehow kill economic development. Plus, I thought, who would believe such an outrageous number?

But then I'm watching the nightly news and there's a local anchor repeating it as though it's fact. And I come in Wednesday morning to e-mails from people in an understandable lather about a shelter that's going to be "overrun with sex offenders."

Being the diplomatic lad that he is, Zaleski said city staffers were merely trying to be realistic about the homeless population who would likely use the shelter.

Actually Mike, reality has very little to do with the picture they painted.

The truth is they'd have to be clairvoyant to know who's going to use the emergency shelter on any given night. The men seeking a warm bed on a cold winter night will likely show up a few hours before the doors open. It could be a roomful of sex offenders, I suppose. But it could also be a roomful of veterans with no criminal records.

What we have here people is a scare tactic — and it's working.

If freaking people out over the potential hit to economic development isn't enough, then float a rumor about a bunch of criminals moving into a shelter near you.

Speaking of, another rumor was that the majority of Center Church members voted against the shelter and were still being saddled with it. But the Rev. Paul Goodman told me more than 80 percent of the members voted for it.

It was by no means an easy decision, he added. Even he struggled with the idea. But in the end, voting against the temporary shelter didn't keep with the spirit of the church's mission.

Here's the reality. Will some of the homeless men who use the shelter also be sex offenders? Probably. According to 2008 figures from the Hartford Police Department, there are 56 registered sex offenders living in the city's 10 shelters that service hundreds on any given night.

Should resident and church member concerns about safety be taken seriously and addressed? Absolutely.

Brian Baker, assistant director at South Park Inn, said he understands the apprehension. Housing sex offenders in homeless shelters isn't just an issue in Hartford, but nationally.

In Georgia, homeless sex offenders with nowhere else to go were living in the woods until they were recently ordered out. And in Connecticut, there's been talk about building housing specifically for sex offenders. Except no one's stepping up to build it in their town. Totally understandable.

But until we find a solution, letting people freeze to death because of misinformation isn't a good one.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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