From cells to shelters

David Abel |  Globe Staff  |  June 18, 2007

Nearly three years after the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the state could post the names, addresses, and photos of the most dangerous sex offenders on a public website, sex offenders released from prison now often end up in homeless shelters, where it is difficult to track them, and a range of potential victims sleep nearby.
In a recent review of 77 Level 3 sex offenders - the category the state uses to define those with a high risk of committing sex crimes again - who list addresses in Boston on the state's online registry, the Globe found that 65 percent reported they were living at homeless shelters.
Level 3 sex offenders are required by law to register their addresses with police.
City and state officials, police, and homeless advocates say the system meant to ease the transition from prison is broken.
They say the glut of sex offenders listing shelters as their address raises questions about whether they have anywhere else to go, whether they are more likely to commit additional sex crimes, and whether they list shelters as their address to evade registration.
"This is a critical issue of grave concern," said Jim Greene, director of the city's Emergency Shelter Commission. "Large, crowded homeless shelters are a militantly antitherapeutic milieu for people with mental health or other behavior problems. They're just not a place for a Level 3 sex offender to reintegrate into society."
He and other advocates for the homeless fault the state for more talk than action to keep sex offenders off the streets.
Greene pointed to an unrealized five-year-old plan the state Department of Correction provides to shelters and other agencies that house recently released prisoners. Former convicts deemed at risk of committing more crimes, it says, should have "risk reduction plans" that include applications for specialized housing, special workshops to help them get jobs and medical services; and supervision after their release.
But sex offenders released from prison often find themselves boxed out from housing. Gerard Theriault, for example, was forced out of a homeless shelter.
After living for more than a year in the basement of St. Paul's Church, the 64-year-old pedophile returned to the Dorchester shelter one day in February and was told he had to leave, immediately.
The Archdiocese of Boston had decided it would no longer allow sex offenders like Theriault, who spent five years in prison for molesting a child, to stay at the shelter, which the Pine Street Inn has run for 20 years.
"I didn't know where else I would go," he said. "It's not like anyone wants to take in a pedophile."
Massachusetts has eight regional centers, including one in Mattapan, to help about 20,000 inmates - including more than 200 sex offenders - released annually from state prisons and jails. Charles McDonald, a spokesman for the state's Sex Offender Registry Board, acknowledged the reentry centers are not able to help most sex offenders find housing.
"Having a home to live in is extremely important for a sex offender to reintegrate," McDonald said. "This is a problem that should be addressed on the grand scale."
One symptom of the problem, he said, is the state's failure to provide supervision for more than 1 in 6 sex offenders. There are 110 sex offenders in the state under strict state supervision, which includes GPS monitoring, biannual polygraph exams, and curfews, said Don Giancioppo, executive director of the Massachusetts Parole Board.
He said those 110 offenders are banned from living in homeless shelters.
Last year, the Legislature required the roughly 1,500 Level 3 sex offenders registered in the state to list their addresses more often - every 45 days instead of 90 days - if they stay in a homeless shelter.
Lawmakers also required them to register any other address where they stay four days or more.
In addition, they banned sex offenders from living in nursing homes, required classification of sex offenders before they leave prison, and mandated lifetime parole supervision for any sex offender convicted of crimes involving children.
In March, Governor Deval Patrick's office also submitted legislation to require mandatory post-release supervision for all inmates, which would last nine months to five years.
The state does not track the number of sex offenders who return to prison for sex crimes or count the homeless Level 3 sex offenders who fail to register. State officials say 49 percent of inmates commit new crimes within one year of leaving prison.
But Boston police Sergeant Detective Kim Gaddy, who verifies sex offenders' addresses, said it is time-consuming for the department to track homeless sex offenders, some of whom lie about living in shelters.
"It does pose difficulties for us, because few people may know them in the shelters and they leave during the day," Gaddy said. "Sometimes we can't find the individuals. You really have to do your homework."
Dr. James O'Connell, president of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, said "an awful lot of people register at the shelter and live somewhere else."
"The odds are that one or more of these sex offenders will recidivate, and if it's at a shelter, we'll all feel terrible," he said. "But if shelters say no to these people, where do they go? It just puts people in a terrible conundrum."
Gerard Theriault found a regular bed in a program for older men at the Pine Street Inn's main, often overcrowded shelter in the South End.
"Our mission and contracts dictate that we take anyone in who presents as homeless," said Shepley Metcalf, a spokeswoman for the Pine Street Inn.
The only exception is for those who pose an imminent danger to others.
She said Pine Street had no problems with Theriault, but that the shelter had to comply with the archdiocese's decision barring sex offenders from St. Paul's.
The archdiocese issued a statement saying it had barred sex offenders from the shelter because "this situation, which we became aware of, was in conflict with the Church's commitment and policies to protect children."
As for Theriault, who takes humanities classes at Harvard Extension School and computer classes at Bunker Hill Community College, he hopes to move out of the shelter soon.
"I'm concentrating my time looking for housing," he said. "It's rather problematic, to say the least. There are places that won't take you no matter what."
David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.