Why are there more homeless offenders in Minnesota?The number of Level 3 predatory offenders registered as "homeless" in Minnesota has skyrocketed since 2003, going from two that year to 24 in 2009, according to data provided by the Department of Corrections.
By: Lisa Baumann and Brandon Stahl/Duluth News Tribune, Pine Journal
Barbara Ziehl didn’t learn until afterward that the man she exchanged good mornings with had recently moved into the neighborhood.
The man, Dustin Kenneth Lee Nelson, is a Level 3 predatory offender who has set up camp at a boat landing down the street from Ziehl’s home on Hanging Horn Lake near Barnum. He’s camping there because he’s homeless.
Now Ziehl said she has stopped taking daily walks through her neighborhood. Whenever she goes outside, she said she’s armed with pepper spray and a cell phone.
“I’m terrified,” she said.
Nelson’s living arrangements have not only changed the dynamics of a quiet rural neighborhood; it’s an example of a troubling trend. While he’s currently the only predatory offender registered as “homeless” in Northeastern Minnesota, statewide the number has skyrocketed since 2003, going from two that year to 24 in 2009, according to data provided by the Department of Corrections.
As of last week, 22 Level 3 predatory offenders were listed as homeless in Minnesota. The majority live in the Twin Cities area, where they can access more services, said Shari Burt, spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections. Level 3 offenders are considered most likely to reoffend, as determined by those working in the corrections system.
Homelessness among predatory offenders is not just a problem for the offenders. Some experts say it makes all of us less safe. Because of the instability it causes, homeless predatory offenders are more likely to reoffend, according to a 2007 study by the Department of Corrections.
Burt said there were many reasons for the jump in homeless registrations. For one thing, offenders weren’t allowed to register as homeless before 2003, when the state Supreme Court ruled that “homeless” was an acceptable registration status. Before that, homeless offenders might have registered as living in shelters or under a bridge, Burt said, but had to list a specific address for those locations.
“An offender could not be technically registered as homeless,” Burt said of the law at that time.
The increase in homeless offenders also corresponds to the overall increase in the number of Level 3 sex offenders in the state, Burt said. There were 94 registered Level 3 offenders in 2007, and now there are about 200.
Those offenders have a more difficult time finding employment and housing because their criminal status is so public, Burt said.
Landlords have become more intolerant of Level 3 offenders, said Tom Roy, executive director of Arrowhead Regional Corrections, which supervises the offenders.
“Everybody now does background checks when you rent and of course nobody’s going to want to rent to that kind of person,” said a worker close to the homeless community in Duluth, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because his organization doesn’t allow staff members to comment publicly to the media.
He said he’s seen at least one man disappear from a local shelter after a story appeared in the News Tribune stating that he was a Level 3 predatory offender.
“Even though they’re homeless, (the shelter) is their own little neighborhood,” he said. “The homeless don’t want those people in their community either.”
In addition, some communities have enacted restrictions on where Level 3 predatory offenders can live.
The Duluth City Council, for example, passed an ordinance in May keeping Level 3 predatory offenders at least a half-mile from all schools, playgrounds and day care centers.
Duluth City Councilor Sharla Gardner said she wanted the ordinance to protect Duluth “because it’s a larger city and (predatory offenders) can get lost in it.
“I certainly think if they’re registering themselves as homeless, it makes it very difficult to keep track of them and that’s the whole point,” she said.
Former City Councilor Russ Stewart holds a different view.
“Those kinds of ordinances are political tools — politician grandstanding — tapping into base fear in a way that’s not really protecting people, and I can’t respect that,” he said.
Whether a Level 3 sex offender has an address near a school or none at all, Stewart said someone likely to reoffend is likely to do it regardless.
“If somebody really needs to be tracked, maybe they should be in jail,” he said. “On the other hand, once you’ve paid your penalty in a society, you should be able to live.”
“Sex offenders already have a difficult time finding employment and housing as it is,” added Burt. “With a Level 3 offender, those problems are magnified.”
Burt noted that Level 3 offenders who are still under the supervision of the Department of Corrections cannot be homeless and must live in a residence approved by the department.
“You can’t supervise someone who doesn’t have an address,” she said.
Nelson’s supervised release has expired, allowing him to register as homeless. People who live near the boat landing where he’s set up camp say he has a put up a tent each night near picnic tables at a public campground. No neighbor around the camp site said that he’s confronted any of them, but almost all said they were afraid of him.
“We’re not used to locking our doors every second of the day,” said Sarah Myhre, who lives near the boat landing. “This makes you put your guard up.”
Ziehl, and her husband, Ronald, said on one hand they feel sorry for him.
“He hasn’t done anything to us,” Ronald said. “But we’re all terrified.”
“We’re all waiting for winter,” Barbara added. “He has to leave for winter.”