Lack of housing forcing high volume of sex offenders into metro neighborhoods

Many released sex offenders find housing in the Twin Cities -- specifically in north Minneapolis and east St. Paul, and it's become a concern for some of the people who already live there.

Joani Essenberg lives in the East Phillips neighborhood in Minneapolis, in the 55404 ZIP code. Essenberg's two kids wait on the corner for the bus every weekday.

"My high school kids stand outside a level three sex offender's house on one corner," Essenberg said. "And then diagonally, on that corner, there's another level three sex offender that lives there."

Essenberg said it's not fair that Hennepin and Ramsey County absorb the largest concentration of sex offenders when they're already dealing with other issues.

"We're dealing with school achievement issues, we're dealing poverty, we're dealing with unemployment, we're dealing with housing issues, and now we're also dealing with sex offenders?" she said. "That feels like our plate is a little too full."

"Hennepin County ends up absorbing too many of [sex offenders] and that also means they end up absorbing the financial and community resources involved in housing them."

Next month, judges may permanently release the first two sex offenders from civil commitment in Minnesota, adding to the existing population of sex offenders who make their home in communities around the state.

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The Phillips neighborhood has one of the highest concentrations of sex offenders in the state. A 2010 Hennepin County report said six level three sex offenders, the most dangerous classification, live there.

Concentrations of sex offenders like the one in the Phillips neighborhood happen for many reasons. When they're released, many cities bar ex-offenders from living near their victims or near schools. Many municipalities and counties take those restrictions even farther.

Another big factor is the difficulty finding affordable housing. The state only helps sex offenders with their first month's rent, meaning many end up in low-income neighborhoods.

"People won't rent to you, so that when you find a few that do, you tend to all go there because at least you have a place to stay so at least you don't get sent back," said Patrick, a level two sex offender whose real name has been withheld for this story.

Patrick was sent back to jail when he couldn't find housing -- a condition of probation. As a result, he risked being reclassified as a level three offender.

"I just did 35 days for being homeless," he said. "I took a risk of going up another level; every time you get put back in there you have to restart all over again."

Last summer, there were 89 level three sex offenders living in Hennepin County. Thirteen level three sex offenders said they were living at a homeless shelter, and nine others gave their address as city hall and were also likely homeless.

Sarah Walker is chief operating officer of 180 Degrees, a Minneapolis nonprofit that runs ex-offender programs. She said communities that are home to more sex offenders should also get more resources.

"Hennepin County ends up absorbing too many of them and that also means they end up absorbing the financial and community resources involved in housing them," Walker said. "I think that is something that should be considered in the long term, is how resources are allocated to counties who absorb more of the offenders."

But with the state in a deep deficit, resources are scarce. State Sen. Linda Berglin, D-Minneapolis, who's ranking minority member on the Health and Human Services Budget committee, said lawmakers should focus on creating more affordable housing and employment opportunities for sex offenders.

"I don't think trying to create more restrictions on what people can do or whether they can get out or not; I don't think those would be a good idea," Berglin said. "That likely would trigger a lawsuit and we could end up having bigger problems."

Meanwhile, there's little evidence that concentrating many sex offenders in one community places a greater danger on its residents. A study by the Minnesota Department of Corrections found no correlation between where sex offenders live and whether they reoffend.

That's because those who do reoffend, do so most often with people they know, including family.