Now the Atlanta Journal Constitution has joined other news outlets spinning fairy tales about the plight of homeless sex offenders forced to live in the woods/under bridges/by the wee blarney rock, where the moss grows.
The stories go like this: completely harmless, harshly punished sex offenders are being forced to live in tents for no other reason but that we invented “draconian” laws that limit where they can obtain housing. If only we didn’t insist on these cruel living restrictions, why, they’d all be happily ensconced in little cottages with gingham curtains. But instead, they have to live in the big, bad woods.
That’s a really sad story. Good thing it isn’t true.
The Miami Herald started this trumped-up morality tale hash with a story about 70 sex offenders living under a bridge. Yes, their parole officers had directed them there; yes, they had failed to find other housing in that area of Miami. So why didn’t they move someplace else? I’d love to live in downtown Miami too, but I can’t afford it. Neither could they — so they could have simply moved outside the city’s downtown, which, incidentally, was already brimming with sex offenders who were not homeless, many hundreds of them (a fact that apparently eluded all the reporters who descended on Miami to record the plight of the small number of homeless ones).
But somehow, “Homeless Sex Offenders Forced to Get Jobs, Live Within Their Means” just doesn’t have that awards ceremony ring to it.
One of the reasons Miami has such a large population of both sex offenders and homeless sex offenders is because they move there from other states, as do thousands of other homeless people who descend on that city, and other cities in Florida (like St. Petersburg) where it’s possible to live outside year-around. You know, Midnight Cowboy? Homeless people, chronic drunks, drug addicts come to escape the cold and stay on in a place notorious for both its drug trade and incredibly corrupt social services, where it’s almost impossible not to get free money from Medicaid scams (mainly, though, it’s the weather).
When homeless sex offenders have to register and announce where they are living, suddenly they are a visible problem, even if they were already homeless for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with sex offender living restriction laws. How many of those men bathetically living under the bridge would have ended up just as homeless without living restrictions? How many are drunks and drug addicts who simply refuse to look for work, the real cause of most homelessness?
When I actually started looking up the criminal records of the offenders listed as residents under that infamous Miami Bridge (which, apparently, nobody in any newsroom did), I was surprised to see how many of them had not served their time in Florida for prison-level offenses. Could the fact that the city had become a magnet for sex offenders — rather than the innate draconianness of the law-abiding — explain city leaders’ desire to make Miami a less desirable destination for rapists from chilly climes?
Nobody in the media was interested in asking questions like that, of course. They were busy tramping around the “encampment” in fake safari gear, shooting photos of tragic extension cords in the sand and such, and credulously tape-recording tall tales of woe peddled to them by child rapists.
This went on for some time. Then the authorities moved in and moved the sex offenders — you guessed it — to available housing. The real issue was money, and once hysterical reporters guilted the government into shoveling a whole bunch more money at a group of miscreants who had long-ago burned through the ordinary goodwill offered by families and employers, suddenly housing was available that could take them, for a price (paid, of course, by us).
This is a racket other homeless people should look into. But unless they set out to commit sex crimes in order to find a nice government-subsidized pad, I don’t know what type of honey-pot they’re going to find to lure NPR reporters into their stinky lairs. Regular homeless people are just so 1985.
Of course, living restrictions — 1,000 or 2,500 foot rules — have depleted the quantity of housing stock available to registered sex criminals, especially in some urban areas. But I suspect that it is the laws requiring sex offenders to register their addresses, not restrictions on where offenders may live, that has depleted the housing stock more dramatically. The primary deterrent keeping people from renting to sex offenders is probably the requirement to announce the presence of a sex offender at a certain address, something even the slummiest slumlords are loath to do. Nobody in the media explored this possibility.
That would have, of course, involved more work than just showing up, sweaty A.C.L.U. press release in hand, to fuming about the outrageous fate visited upon these accidental trolls. It would involve numbers, research: finding landlords who used to rent to sex offenders but stopped when neighbors found their tenants on websites, and landlords who still do rent to offenders but won’t take broke, drunk, or violent ones. All in all, harder work than spending five minutes emoting righteously on a beach while the camera-girl keeps her backside firmly against the lean-to wall.
Could the media’s disinterest in registration as a cause of homelessness also arise from the fact that the public supports and understand the value of registering sex offenders, far more than they support restricting where sex offenders may live?
Registration makes sex offenses visible: it makes visible all the sex crimes committed by that guy who comes to rent your mother’s house or apply for that job at the Kentucky Fried Chicken. My own rapist had a nasty habit, between rapes, of stalking female employees and customers at the fast food place where he was employed. Pre-registry, he got away with it, and the restaurant declined to prosecute him when he got caught peering under stalls in the women’s room, probably because that one offense didn’t seem like a big enough deal to act upon, absent knowledge of the rest of his colorful past.
A shame, because he went on to commit some really horrific additional offenses. Like many sex offenders, peeping was only his day job. Nowadays, his criminal history would have been available to potential employers or landlords, and, believe me, they would not be letting him close down shop at 11 p.m. with that nice teenage girl they’d just hired to run the cash register.
And it’s not just sex crimes that pop up on background checks now. Even a cursory search of the criminal records of the homeless-men-living-under-the-bridge revealed scores of non-sex crime-related good reasons to refuse to hire or rent to them — armed robberies, aggravated assaults, burglaries, check-kiting. The availability of this information doubtlessly contributes to homelessness among all ex-cons, not just the ones who are sex offenders.
Yet somehow, other homeless ex-cons just don’t inspire the type of romanticized advocacy showered by the media on sex criminals.
What really happened in Miami is this: a bunch of criminals who probably would have been homeless anyway ended up in an encampment because they refused to relocate to areas where they could legally live but were undesirable to them for other reasons (no water view? long commute to good panhandling? miss the nights spent swapping stories over the sex-offender fire?). They attracted the attention of the A.C.L.U., which is hell-bent not only on overturning living restriction laws but also sex offender registration laws, and even blocking employer access to non-sex crime criminal histories (an idea being kited by “re-entry” activists in the Justice Department, too).
The A.C.L.U. saw, in the homeless encampment, an irresistible public relations coup. And they knew that the media, which romanticizes sex offenders even more than they romanticize other criminals, would not look too closely. Boy, were they right: you can accuse civil libertarian lawyers of a lot of sins, but dullness ain’t one of them.
Fast-forward a few months and a few thousand AP reprints later. Somehow, the 70 sex offenders living under the bridge got some 7.5 million tax dollars to move, and move they did. I suppose the feds are building them a magical forest and golf-course community in Hialeah, with that pot of gold. This inspired other intrepid reporters in other cities to go searching for their own lucky Pulitzer-bearing leprechauns in the woods, and, amazingly, they found them.
Reporters found drunken, drug-addicted, violent, lazy, perverted ex-cons who have trouble finding people who will let them live in their houses!
Who says journalism is dead?
Speaking of journalists, I realize, as I’m writing this, that I owe that editor at Gawker a huge apology for taking him to task yesterday for using a mean term to describe those who feel that Roman Polanski should indeed go to jail for anally raping a child. Gawker, you see, was the only major news outlet in the country that called one of those homeless-sex offenders-under-the-bridge-type stories for what it is:
“so unrelentingly hackneyed that William Shatner ought to read it aloud to bongos.”
Now, the story they were mocking was not exactly a homeless-sex-offender-under-the-bridge story: there was no bridge in it, for one thing, and Times columnist Dan Barry completely didn’t notice that the grizzled homeless guy he was swooning over turned out to be a serial child rapist and former most-wanted criminal who was in violation of his own requirement to register with the state when he offered to share his woods-wisdom with the reporter. That little fact only came out after Barry’s column had been published, when an entirely different person decided to spend all of ten seconds typing Grizzly Adams’ name into the state criminal database.
You know, to see if any of the things the Times had just published about the guy’s plight were even true.
Which they weren’t, a fact that eluded the — what — 1,500, 2,000 employee Times newsroom?
This: Is not this:
Will Ferrell, playing a mythical, toy-making elf John Frietas, registry-absconding child-rapist
Once you get done asking yourself why none of the 1,500 – 2,000 reporters and editors and fact-checkers employed by the Times did even the most rudimentary background check on a self-professed criminal who was the subject of a scolding column about how we don’t care about the homeless as much as Dan Barry does, you really have to ask yourself this:
Why would a most-wanted registry-absconding serial child sex offender allow himself be interviewed at length by a famous, nationally-syndicated reporter from the biggest-circulation newspaper in the world?
I can’t think of any reason, except maybe this John Frietas subscribes to the New York Times, and so he felt safe pitching his story there.
Sorry, Gawker. I was wrong to question your integrity.