For the next three years of J. Mercado’s life, finding a suitable place to live in New York City will depend entirely on how close the building is to area schools, plus the consent of his parole officer.
Under state law, Mercado, cannot live within 1,000 feet of schools—making large swaths of Brooklyn off-limits. Parole conditions also prohibit him from fraternizing with other ex-convicts and limit contact to family and friends screened by parole officials.
So when he was finally released from an upstate prison in January, Mercado was confused to find himself living with dozens of sex offenders and other parolees in an illegal rooming house in Flatbush, Brooklyn.
“I don’t even understand the logic—who comes up with this?” said Mercado, who was assigned to a rooming house on Bedford Avenue operated by Horizon Hope Center, which is described in a flier as “safe housing for all who need it, with the comforts of home, and a feeling of close-knit peer support.”
As many as 50 men reside in a converted medical office where doorless units connect in a maze of drywall. Narrow bunk beds infested with bedbugs crowd rooms a few feet wide with posted signs instructing that rent be sent to a postal box by the 10th of every month, “no exceptions.”
Residents share two bathrooms and sign in and out of the building, leaving details of their whereabouts on a clipboard with a housing manager—also a resident with a criminal background and the only one with keys.
“I don’t want to be there,” Mercado said of Horizon Hope. “It’s really just me getting out of there as soon as possible and getting back as late as possible.”
Failure to make nightly curfew at Horizon Hope can trigger a parole violation that lands Mercado back in prison.
Mercado, who was convicted of raping a 12-year-old child in 2011, served three years behind bars plus an additional four months as the state struggled to find him housing. He, and some other offenders, spoke on the condition of partial anonymity for fear of backlash from parole or prospective employers.
State records show at least 19 sex offenders lived at Horizon Hope as of December 2014, even though the rooming house is illegal, according to the city Department of Buildings. The center is located in commercial space that was never approved for residential use.
Clusters of sex offenders living in boarding houses like Horizon Hope, cheap motels and homeless shelters have become common in the decade since New York implemented statewide residency restrictions for many sex offenders under parole supervision. The law, the Sexual Assault Reform Act, or SARA, bars those the state determines pose the highest risk of reoffending, or whose victims were under 18 years old, from living within 1,000 feet of institutions serving children while still on parole.
An analysis of state sex offender registry data by The New York World found at least 15 privately owned residences and 19 homeless shelters across the state housed a minimum of 10 offenders each in December 2014. All told, these 34 facilities housed more than 650 sex offenders as of the end of 2014. In addition, nearly 3,000 other sex offenders were registered at an address with at least one other offender.
For the neighborhoods in which these clusters are located, they can place additional burdens on low-income communities already struggling with high unemployment and poverty rates. And for the offenders living in them, many don’t provide the stable, safe environments research has shown to be critical for successful reentry.
The task of proposing residencies for review ultimately falls to offenders and their families. Parole officers can reject housing for a variety of reasons beyond the 1,000-foot rule, including the criminal history of others residing at the address or the presence of children. In some cases, offenders are forced to live in boarding houses or shelters after proposals to live with spouses or other family members were rejected by the offender’s parole officer for unspecified reasons.
Last year, the state began keeping parolees in prison for months after their scheduled release dates as officials waited for beds to open. At the end of 2014, at least 24 sex offenders were kept in state prisons beyond their release dates.
A spokesperson with the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), which oversees prisons and parole, acknowledged the agency faces “enormous challenges in finding suitable housing given the shortage of affordable housing and laws.” The agency also noted that it houses parolees through a combination of contractual and “non-contractual services” like Horizon Hope—all of which are “closely monitored” by parole officers.
While local police agencies are tasked with keeping sex offenders properly registered with the state, DOCCS officials are responsible for releasing and monitoring them in the community while under state supervision.
Residency laws are “wildly popular” in the U.S. even though researchers have found little evidence that they curb recidivism or deter sex crimes, said Cynthia Calkins, an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice specializing in sex offender issues. “It’s another piece of feel-good legislation that would work if our stereotypical idea of sex offending were true, but it’s not.”
A 2007 statistical study by the Minnesota Department of Corrections found “very little support for the notion that residency restriction laws would lower the incidence of sexual recidivism, particularly among child molesters.”
Rebuking the “stranger danger” stereotype, Calkins said, “most sex crimes are perpetrated against people the offender knows.” Instead, research shows parolees of all criminal backgrounds are less likely to commit another offense when they have stable housing with strong family and community support.
Some law enforcement officials aren’t sold on the efficacy of residency restrictions either. Mark Spawn, a retired police chief from Fulton, New York, and the director of research and training for the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police, said sex offender management should be taken in a “balanced” approach, and he called residency restrictions “politically popular.”
“You want to police them rationally and scientifically, using the best evidence,” said Spawn, who has trained various state and local agencies in sex offender management. “When you start putting up so many obstacles to offenders, it makes it almost impossible to live in any part of the city.”
Spawn called sex offenders “a compliant bunch, by and large,” but added that increasing restrictions may backfire. “When you make it too difficult for them, they’re just going to go off the radar.”
A state statute enacted in 2008 offers conflicting guidance for housing sex offenders on parole supervision. In one section, the statute emphasized that reducing recidivism among sex offenders means helping offenders reintegrate into local communities with “a stable living situation and access to employment and support services.” Officials were also instructed to avoid “ill-advised concentration of sex offenders,” which “may create risks and burdens to the surrounding community.”
But that same document also notes that keeping offenders together in the same location may be preferable as it makes supervision easier for parole officers. It makes no mention of what constitutes a high concentration of sex offenders, or the implications of clustering offenders together.
Parents for Megan’s Law Inc., a Long Island-based victims advocacy group, has been one of the leading voices calling for greater supervision of sex offenders, regardless of parole status. The group declined to respond directly to specific questions, but referred to a February press release that called for a “reasonable” residency restriction that “protects our most vulnerable while not placing an unfair burden on communities resulting from clustering.”
The group noted that while “there is minimal evidence demonstrating that residence restriction laws prevent sexual victimization,” it ultimately favors restrictions because “daily exposure and access to a vulnerable victim pool facilitates the potential for sex offender fantasy to become a heinous reality.”
Legally, sex offenders returning from prison face hurdles unlike any other parolees, including those convicted of murder. “I don’t think there’s anybody in our society that’s more despised than sex offenders,” said Elon Harpaz, a Legal Aid Society attorney who represents offenders kept in prison beyond their scheduled release dates. He said clients remain an average of four to six additional months after they have been granted parole or post-release supervision.
Civil liberty groups and attorneys for offenders argue that the state’s 1,000-foot rule amounts to a virtual “banishment” of sex offenders in New York City by creating exclusion zones that make most addresses off-limits. Harpaz said there’s “virtually nowhere” for sex offenders to live within the five boroughs. “We’re talking about human beings, people who are supposed to be returned to the community.”
Despite the difficulties residency restrictions create and the lack of evidence that they offer any meaningful protection to communities, state legislators continue sponsoring legislation that further restricts where offenders can live.
Since January, state legislators have proposed more than 100 bills involving sex offenders—mostly aimed at restricting residency, movement, and job prospects or expanding supervision and notification protocols. Efforts to enact statewide residency laws for all sex offenders, regardless of parole status, have intensified in light of a recent state Court of Appeals ruling striking down local laws that went beyond state SARA restrictions.
One bill would allow municipalities to block sex offenders from moving into an area “overly concentrated” with them, giving municipalities the option to set the maximum at one offender per address. The proposal was drafted in response to motels near Albany housing numerous sex offenders.
“Our highest priority as elected officials must be to protect the public from harm,” said Assemblyman Jim Tedisco (R-Glenville), the bill’s sponsor. “This legislation aims to better protect honest, hardworking, law-abiding citizens from being preyed upon by the worst-of-the-worst sex offenders, who, in many instances, are living clustered together just steps away from children and families.”
Among the largest clusters in late 2014 were more than 80 offenders living on James Street in downtown Syracuse, spread across four low-income complexes. A two-family home on McBride Street in Far Rockaway reported 23 offenders, despite pending foreclosure. Another two-family residence on Atlantic Avenue in East New York listed 17 offenders.
Offenders such as Mercado ultimately have little say in where officials place them. Parole officials rejected dozens of Mercado’s proposed residences before settling on the Bedford Avenue rooming house.
Little information is available about Horizon Hope, which filed as a nonprofit with the New York State Department of State in 2008, but isn’t registered with the Internal Revenue Service or the state Charities Bureau, as required.
The building, which is in foreclosure, is rife with unpaid city fines and has been cited for broken sewage pipes, mold, and vermin.
But none of these issues deterred DOCCS officials from sending more than $3,200 to Horizon Hope since 2014 to cover “emergency housing of parolees,” according to a DOCCS spokesperson. The agency said it has sent parolees to Horizon Hope since 2012.
One former Horizon Hope resident sued DOCCS under the pseudonym Michael Devine after his parole officer ordered him to live there in early 2014. Devine claimed he was suddenly uprooted from the Brooklyn home he shared for years with his fiancee and their children due to its proximity to a school.
While strapped with an ankle monitor, he was given weeks to find a new address and barred from returning to the home where he lived for several years while on post-release supervision. He won his case and was allowed home in September, but DOCCS is appealing the decision.
Devine—who was convicted of first-degree sexual abuse—declined to speak with The New York World out of fear of retribution from DOCCS in the ongoing case, according to his attorney, Lisa Napoli. She confirmed that DOCCS paid for Devine’s stay at Horizon Hope in early 2014 until a judge released him to his mother’s house in early April.
A DOCCS spokesperson said bedbug claims by Devine in 2014 were “unsubstantiated.” The spokesperson also said that parole officials routinely visit Horizon Hope to investigate any housing complaints, adding that a 2014 site visit “did not suggest any red flag issues” and met “minimal housing standards.”
Thaddeus “Teddy” Okoloh, Horizon Hope founder and operator, faulted building management for any unsafe conditions and denied any wrongdoing. “I’m not doing anything out of the ordinary,” said Okoloh, who claimed a longstanding arrangement with DOCCS officials who inspect the premises annually.
“My relationship with corrections is very clean and clear,” Okoloh said, calling it a “contract” without a time limit. A review of state records found that no such contract exists, but the DOCCS payments to Horizon Hope were addressed to Okoloh.
All those involved with the Bedford property denied responsibility for the illegal use of the space. Frank Rio, a court-appointed attorney managing the property since foreclosure proceedings began in 2009, faulted the management company, BPC Management LLC. BPC directed all inquiries to Rio. Property owner Ezekiel Akande denied any involvement with Horizon Hope or BPC, blaming Rio for any illegal activity.
A lack of adequate housing that complies with SARA restrictions isn’t just a problem in New York City—experts say the problem exists statewide. Many sex offenders upstate are increasingly relegated to the outskirts of town, according to Kelly Socia, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, who specializes in criminal reentry and recidivism.