By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
By Albert Samaha
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
If you were to track the location of the GPS unit cinched to Mr. C's ankle on a recent Thursday at dusk, the red dot would veer northeast on Market and then head north on Grant. At Broadway, the dot hooks a U-turn — with all the street's porn shops and strip clubs, he knows he shouldn't get caught there — and finally stops in Union Square.
Mr. C settles onto a bench to rest beside the plaza's ice rink. Chatting about the reason he's tracked by satellites, he doesn't seem to notice a cheery announcer welcoming people to "kids' night out at the skate rink!" As he surveys the skaters, he notices a girl pulling herself around the rink's wall. With a red duffle coat and a brown bob framing ruddy cheeks, she could have been plucked straight from a Gap Christmas commercial. She looks to be about 11.
"People like that — I stay away from," Mr. C says. "Don't even want to look at 'em. Taboo."
Mr. C, now 61, used to love all things "taboo," be it European child porn he locked away in a chest in his Outer Mission garage, or the Israeli and Hungarian semiautomatic weapons he stowed in his bedroom. Then there was the girl.
She was 8, from a family whose older members considered him a friend. "I started to like her a lot, like fall in love kind of thing. ... Somehow you lose track of reality." He knew he shouldn't have "kissed her and touched her" while he was supposed to be babysitting. He knew he shouldn't be taping nude videos of her, directing the smiling girl to stroke one of his weapons, footage even his defense attorney calls "a little sickening." (Mr. C, like most sex offenders SF Weekly interviewed for this article, doesn't want his name printed for his safety.)
So when the cops rang his doorbell early on a December day in 1998, he was ready. He walked into the bathroom in his pajamas, shoved his 9 mm Browning handgun into his mouth, and, when police knocked on the door telling him to come out, he pulled the trigger. Bullet fragments blasted out his teeth and mangled his face. He woke up handcuffed to a hospital bed. During the preliminary hearing, he drank a glass of green antifreeze. ("Tastes kinda sweet," he recalls.) He passed out, but survived again.
So Mr. C accepted fate. He pleaded guilty to continuous sexual abuse of a child and spent the next nine years in prison. Considered a "high-risk sex offender," when he was released on parole two months ago he agreed to stay 100 yards away from any place children might gather. That meant no pools, parks, or schools; ice rinks didn't make the list. Yet there's a reason Mr. C is sitting in Union Square insisting on his lack of interest in young girls, rather than at one of the motels where parole officials used to house guys like him.
He's homeless. Californians voted for him to be.
In 2006, voters passed Jessica's Law, a tough-on-crime ballot measure promising to better track people who'd committed sex crimes. Such people would permanently wear GPS devices and be banned from living in "predator-free zones," 2,000 feet from a park or school. In densely populated San Francisco, that basically means the approximately 70 paroled sex offenders in the city can't live anywhere at all. (Although the city is home to 1,100 registered sex offenders, the residency rules are currently enforced only for those released on parole after the passage of the law.)
Some psychiatrists, social workers, police officers, and attorneys contend that Jessica's Law makes everyone less safe. The tumult of transience increases the risk of parolees reoffending, falling into addiction, or going missing altogether. Attorneys and parolees alike complain that the law doesn't merely net child molesters like Mr. C, but also those whose offenses occurred decades ago for sex crimes that had nothing to do with children and were sometimes as minor as indecent exposure.
The state Supreme Court is reviewing a challenge to the law's constitutionality, and will decide by the beginning of February to whom — if anyone — residency restrictions should apply. Until then, those paroled to San Francisco and across the state will remain banished as they have been for the last three years — lone rangers on the fringe.
Mr. C is determined not to go back to prison. While California prisons offer no sex-offender–specific treatments, he swears he's cured and will never reoffend. "I'm really good at turning things off in myself, if I feel that it's gonna do more harm," he says, scanning the skaters gliding by. "Even if I look and saw [them], I don't care. Just like everyone else rolling around, [the girls are] meaningless to me." Out on the street, he gets many chances to prove that every day.
At 8 a.m. sharp each Monday, Mr. C walks up to the parole office in a red building on Mission Street in the shadow of the Central Freeway. Checking in on transient sex offenders, many of whom can't afford cellphones, would require parole agents to hunt them down all over the city. So, every week, parole officers make the homeless come to them.
Dozens of transients arrive by foot, on motorcycle, and in used trucks with mattresses plopped in the back. Mr. C, normally a chatterbox, keeps to himself. Even among sex offenders, there's a hierarchy of shame — child molesters at the top, a guy who exposed himself at a gas station near the bottom — and Mr. C hears others grumble that it's because of people like him that Jessica's Law passed. ("If someone did something to one of my kids, I'd probably cut his hand off," said one man who had been convicted of rape. "They need to give [child molesters] the gas chamber, in my book.")
Mr. C turns in a handwritten log of every place he has been over the last week. Parole officers will later compare it with the GPS printouts. He goes to his psychiatric appointment, and that's it. The rest of his week is less defined by where he needs to be than by where he shouldn't go.
Homelessness may seem a simple concept, but Jessica's Law has turned it into a semantic game. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) policy for parolees defines a residence as "one or more addresses at which a person regularly resides," such as a house, apartment, motel, shelter, or even vehicle. "Regularly" depends on a parole officer's review of the "totality of the circumstances," though guidelines state that when a person stays in the same place for two or more days or nights, or even for one day or night in consecutive weeks, it's starting to look like a residence — even if that "residence" is a couch or shelter bed.
So the trick each day is to avoid acquiring an "address." Some transients live in RVs on out-of-the-way lots. Others park vans in alleys or casino parking lots. The poorest sleep in doorways, beneath underpasses, or outside bus stations. Some unwritten rules show bureaucracy at its most inane: Sign up for a bed at a homeless shelter, and you're establishing a residence; fall asleep on a seat at the drop-in center at the same shelter, and you aren't.
Some parolees can't handle the restrictions. Parole officers say a couple of parolees have placed their GPS units on their desks — a blatant violation — and declared: I can't live like this. Do what you gotta do. At least in prison, they'll have a bed and three meals a day.
While no studies directly connect homelessness to reoffending, the California Sex Offender Management Board (CASOMB) says transience is not helping. The board is an amalgam of legal, law enforcement, and medical experts under the jurisdiction of the CDCR that addresses the handling of the state's sex offenders. A 2008 CASOMB report concluded that homelessness destabilizes parolees' lives, making it harder for them to get and keep jobs, re-establish relationships with families, and reintegrate into society — all safeguards against reoffending.
In San Francisco, evidence of whether homelessness has pushed parolees into committing more sex crimes is anecdotal and inconclusive. While the CDCR declined to give information, Jim Serna, an inspector with the San Francisco Police Department's sex offender registration unit, says he could think of only two cases in which post–Jessica's Law transients have committed further sex crimes. Both were misdemeanor offenses — indecent exposure and sexual battery — though he says both were charged as felonies, given the perpetrators' priors. Yet Serna said both men had long histories of similar crimes, whether homeless or not.
Still, no one needs to look further than Bob H. to see how transience can make it hard to stay out of trouble. On a recent Tuesday morning, the charismatic 360-pound tank of a man plugs in his ankle GPS unit at a cafe across from the Hall of Justice. A gold nugget ring adorns one of his chafed fingers, and the contours of his goatee are blurred for lack of upkeep. "I'm generally a well-dressed cat," he says, "but this is what happens when you sleep in the streets."
When Bob was paroled in 2007 after serving three years for forced oral copulation with an 18-year-old, his parole agent let him switch houses every two days and remain registered as a transient. A few months later, the agent told him he had to move every day. In 2008, parole officials changed the policy, hoping to prevent people from couch-surfing to get around the residency rules. The time limit for staying in any "residence" shrank to just two hours a day, solely to charge a GPS unit. There is no limit on parolees being indoors if they're working, receiving medical care, or seeking government services.
Bob claims when the two-hour policy went into effect, his problems began. He was arrested for registering for a seven-day bed at a homeless shelter, and was sent back to prison. He says his massive frame makes it impossible for him to sleep in a flimsy chair at a shelter, so finding alternatives has become a game of cat and mouse. He has checked into psychiatric wards, declaring himself suicidal, or at a detox drop-in center, declaring himself high — both are technically considered getting treatment by a licensed provider, one of the permitted exceptions to the residency rule. Sometimes he'll snooze on BART; other nights, he'll fall asleep in a hospital emergency room before guards kick him out.
To numb the stress of constantly moving around, Bob says he resorted to smoking crack. That only kicked off a series of dirty drug tests, more parole violations, and more prison.
It's a common scenario. "They're sleeping outside, whatever it takes for them to stay warm, that's what they do," says Na'im Harrison, a case manager at the Northern California Service League, a nonprofit in SOMA that provides services to parolees. "They drink and they smoke crack. It makes them get through their night."
With residential rehab programs rejecting sex offenders (those would be considered residences, anyway), Bob says he began a 20-day outpatient rehab class four times. Each time was interrupted by his being sent back to prison. Once, the charge on his GPS got too low, which was another parole violation. The CDCR confirms that Bob has been charged with nine parole violations and returned to prison five times, the longest stay of which was five months.
Bob says he's trying to get himself together. He recently got certified in a city jobs program, and has been dropping off résumés. He started attending church, and has gotten engaged to his longtime girlfriend, the mother of his 7-year-old daughter, though he can't live with them any time soon. Yet he says he still drinks hard liquor every night to fall asleep, and feels himself getting addicted. His stress is palpable. He cries as he talks about being exhausted all the time: "They say, 'Don't be involved with the streets,' but they put you in the street. It's like dangling meat in front of a tiger. You're setting us up to fail."
San Francisco was the only county in California that voted against things being this way, rejecting Jessica's Law at the ballot box in 2006. The law draws its name from 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford, who was raped and buried alive in two garbage bags in Florida in 2005 by a previously convicted sex offender. California's version was part of a national wave of such legislation to get tough on sex criminals. It increased mandatory sentences for sex crimes and increased the number of offenders who must be screened for being "sexually violent predators," who are sent to a state psychiatric hospital after completing their prison sentences.
Yet the initiative's vague wording left police unsure of how to implement it. It's "unlawful" for registered sex offenders to reside near schools and parks, yet the initiative doesn't specify whether such a violation should be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. Numerous challenges to the law were filed in the courts, attempting to define for whom, exactly, it should be enforced. Anyone who has committed just about any sex-related crime — indecent exposure, pimping of a minor, rape, child molestation, possession of child pornography — must register. There are 88,000 registered sex offenders in California — more than could fit at one time in Candlestick Park — of whom 1,100 live in San Francisco. That would mean a lot of people in "unlawful" housing.
In February 2007, a federal judge limited the scope of the enforcement by ruling that the law could not be applied retroactively. Finally, in August 2007, nine months after voters passed Jessica's Law, CDCR sent out a memo that parole officers should begin enforcing it as a condition of parole for sex offenders released from prison after it had passed. This meant that residency limitations would apply even to those who committed their crimes before the law was enacted.
This wasn't the first time criminals had faced restrictions on where they could sleep. For years, "high-risk sex offenders" have been banned from living within half a mile of a school. Yet Jessica's Law blacked out nearly all of San Francisco other than Pier 80, AT&T Park, a couple of high-rent blocks in SOMA, and the empty Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. Parolees living anywhere else were served notices to move out in 45 days.
It's unclear whether the measure's author, state Senator George Runner (R-Lancaster), saw the storm coming. "I think we knew it would be difficult for individuals to find areas to live," he told SF Weekly. "We certainly knew San Francisco was going to be a more challenging issue." Yet the president of Crime Victims United of California, a group that strongly endorsed Jessica's Law, says Runner never addressed her warnings. "We raised concern with the senator about that," Harriet Salarno says. "We voiced, 'What are you going to do with people in San Francisco?'" It was an enormous oversight. According to CASOMB's report, the number of transient sex offenders jumped 800 percent across the state between when the law passed and June 2008.
Serna points to another of the law's flaws: Although Jessica's Law restricted sex offenders from living at a residence 2,000 feet from a park or school, it didn't prevent them from sleeping on a bench in the park (one sex offender told SF Weekly he sleeps in Golden Gate Park) or at the school's front door. CDCR representatives say parole conditions cover that loophole by banning sex offenders from parks and schools. Still, the irony is not lost on parolees, who know their parole agents don't track their whereabouts at all times.
"When I was living in Pacific Heights in a box, I was, like, a block away from a school," said one sex offender who asked not to be named. "I'm on GPS, but I could go rape a kid and they wouldn't know about it until three days later."
While people debate the efficacy of the residency rules, state law enforcement agencies are waiting to see whether the California Supreme Court throws those rules out. In October 2007, four unnamed parolees filed a habeas corpus writ asking to be exempted from the residency restrictions. Three of them faced having to move out of their homes within days or be arrested on parole violations; one of them was already homeless. One San Francisco petitioner, E.J., who lived with his wife and their four children under 12, had been denied a transfer by the parole department to another county where he could find housing.
The parolees' attorneys argue the law is unconstitutional and overly broad, since it excludes sex offenders from living in entire cities and keeps those whose crimes didn't involve children from living near schools and parks. Then there's the fact that many now subject to residency limitations are on parole for new, non-sex-related crimes, which is true of the petitioners in the case. For instance, S.P. was on parole for knowingly receiving stolen property, and K.T. had been most recently convicted of felony grand theft.
At a Supreme Court hearing on the case in November, Ernest Galvan, one of the attorneys representing the four petitioners, argued the law violates the ex post facto statute, which refers to the fact that no one can be punished by a law that didn't exist when they committed their crime. He argued that, at the most, the enforcement of the statute should be limited to those who had committed sex crimes after the law passed.
Ken Mennemeier, the lawyer for the CDCR, contends that the law is constitutional since it doesn't restrict whom the offenders can live with, merely where they can live. He argues that no federal authority has established the right of convicted sex offenders to live wherever they want. Moreover, he says the residency restrictions are a regulatory measure, not a punishment, so the ex post facto law doesn't even apply.
Galvan disagreed. He told SF Weekly that it seems like medieval banishment: "You're condemned to be a wraith walking the streets."
After dusk, the Jessica's Law wraiths start to settle on a shadowy street across from high-end condos a block from the Caltrain depot in SOMA. You could call it an encampment. On any given evening, up to a dozen sex offenders find it a safe place to sleep with minimal interference from law enforcement.
On a Tuesday night in mid-December, the men hung out before heading to sleep in their vans and tents: smoking cigarettes, one popping open a 24-ounce can of Steel Reserve. They grumbled about Jessica's Law, and one announced that his pee jug — an empty bottle many keep handy to take a leak without having to go in the street — had been stolen.
But the main topic of discussion that night was that Monroe had gone back to jail. He always slept in a sleeping bag under a blue tarp on the sidewalk, snuggling with a radio tuned to soft rock on KBLX to break up the solitude. His GPS unit had broken or fallen off — the story was unclear — and he hadn't immediately called his parole agent as the rules required.
It was an all-too-common cautionary tale about how easy it is to get locked up again. Jessica's Law is "inhuman," said one man who rolled a suitcase up to a rank-smelling van he said he was "renting" from another parolee who got sent back to jail. "But I'd rather be inhuman out here than human in there" — "there" meaning prison.
The men have learned to navigate the rules, and sometimes how to work around them. As one put it, "I gotta play the game with 'em [the parole department] to keep 'em happy." Another says he found a "loophole, but they're trying to close it on me." Since parolees are allowed to travel within a 50-mile radius of San Francisco, he sleeps at his wife's house in the East Bay for two nights, and returns to the city on the third. (Parole agents told SF Weekly that isn't allowed.)
The block these men are staying on is a loophole, too, though more of an official one. It's too close to a park or school for them to live indoors, but according to a parole department memo released in July, transient encampments, bridges, and bus stops are not "residences." The distance restrictions don't apply.
Still, the parole officers don't particularly like the offenders clustering here. One parolee said that he, like many others, had been told to move on. Technically, it's a violation for parolees to hang out together unless they are receiving social services. And they're definitely forbidden to live in the same residence (two sex offender parolees were busted this fall for sharing an RV). But they claim they've been given bizarre instructions on how to bend that rule as well. One parole agent told them to stay 6 or 7 feet away from the next guy. They don't always obey. They talk to each other face-to-face, and one transient said he and another man sleep at opposite ends of his 6-foot-wide tent.
Each morning, a cop walks by to tell the men on the sidewalk to move on. The ones with vans can keep them parked. One transient sweeps away cigarette butts and beer cans, and the men pack up and take off for the day, a band of nomads constantly on the move.
Many of the men at the encampment are well into or past middle age, having served sentences for serious sex offenses decades ago that, with few exceptions, they insist they didn't commit. But Jessica's Law has also netted people whose original crime was arguably minor — such as Rod (not his real name). A plump, gregarious middle-aged man, Rod prefers blazing around solo in his red Windstar instead of hunkering down with the other guys in the city. Usually. On a recent afternoon, his mother rode shotgun while complaining about her son getting arrested for oversleeping at his house.
Rod's record of petty offenses could wallpaper a bathroom. He has picked up a couple of harder convictions for drug possession, too. But the severity of his sex offense? According to the police, Rod strolled into a Shell gas station in South San Francisco at 7 a.m. in August 1995, "pulled out his penis, and raised his arms."
Rod remembers it somewhat differently and without shame: "I had a 60-inch waist. I'm really fat. So when I sit down, I unbuckle my pants." He says he walked into the gas station without remembering to zip back up, and "I don't wear underwear, so I guess my thing was hanging out." Even the California Department of Justice determined that the indecent exposure offense wasn't grave enough for Rod's mugshot to appear on the state's online sex offender registry. Though his face is spared a viewing at a mouse click, he does still have to register with the police. (The SFPD confirmed that this is for his indecent exposure case in 1995.) So when he missed a deadline to register, he was arrested and sent to San Quentin.
Released last year on parole, he was subject to Jessica's Law, just like hundreds of others across the state who aren't on parole for the crime that made them a sex offender in the first place. Rod's story gets even more improbable. Parolees are supposed to be returned to their county of last residence, which Rod says would mean San Mateo, where he still pays rent. He believes his parents' house there would be compliant with Jessica's Law. Yet a paperwork mixup prevents him from living with his folks. A document in his probation file showed a residential rehab program in San Francisco as a past address, and so he was paroled here. His efforts to get transferred back have failed so far.
Rod has found one place where it's in the house's interest that he stay as long as possible: 24-hour card clubs. He says he sits down almost nightly to play Texas Hold 'Em until the early morning hours. He guesses he's gambled away tens of thousands of dollars in the last year of homelessness, and is plummeting into credit card debt. "I would leave [while I'm winning], if I had somewhere to go," he says. Recently, he's been sleeping in casino parking lots.
Oakland attorney Robert Beles wrote to Rod's parole agent, arguing that Rod should be exempt from Jessica's Law because Rod committed his offense more than 10 years prior to the law's passage. Parole officials' response can be best summed up in two words: shot down. Beles says he made the same request in a habeas corpus writ in Alameda County Superior Court. The judge, like others in the state considering similar pleas, put the case on hold, waiting for the state Supreme Court to decide.
While the opposing attorneys pushed their interpretations of the law at the November hearing, the Supreme Court justices asked about people like Rod, who were caught in the middle. Would enforcement be illegally retroactive if it applies to those who had long been discharged from parole for their sex offenses, but were on parole for new non-sex-related crimes?
Galvan says that for the ban on retroactivity to apply, the justices would have to determine that the residency restrictions are actually a punishment and not simply a civil regulation. The issue has divided the country's courts, he says, with a handful of state supreme courts ruling that it's a punishment, and the U.S. Supreme Court stretching in favor of a civil regulation.
At least one California Supreme Court justice seemed to agree with Galvan that the law puts offenders in an unfair predicament. Justice Carol Corrigan said that paroling people to a county where they couldn't live indoors "would be an absurd interpretation," and wondered whether they could be transferred to counties with more housing options. Galvan responded that the receiving counties would undoubtedly object; plus the move would require the justices to tinker with the legislation, when they usually just interpret it.
The question of who will continue to be affected by the law and who will not remains as the early February ruling approaches. Since California is home to the most sex offenders in the country, the ruling will certainly reverberate nationally.
But some of the greatest effects of the decision will be much more local — for the roughly 70 parolees here in the city who are currently living in a voter-inflicted paradox. "They don't want you to stay, but they don't want you to go," Bob H. says.
As for Mr. C, he isn't holding out much hope that the justices will let him move indoors. He assumes he'll just continue the routine he has established in his two months out of jail. He hangs out at a nonprofit during the day, or runs a few errands. As he ambles around San Francisco, he talks to keep himself company and turns down panhandlers who ask him for change: "Buddy, I'm as broke as you are." With just a sweatshirt on his back, he'll sometimes pretend to read brochures in the BART station to warm up. His pride keeps him from lying down.
When teenage girls get on the J-Church train, Mr. C can't help but notice how developed they are at young ages these days: "Big butts and boobs — like, dang, what did they put in their food?" But years of prison will kill your taste for such things, he says: "It's scary to think about it, even." As for the victim of his molestation, "It's not her fault. I hope she turned out normal."
Though being homeless embarrasses him, it also offers a comforting dose of anonymity. Peering into shop windows he passes, Mr. C avoids glimpsing his face, the disfigured reminder of his past. Out here, he can simply be the friendly old man who was delighted when a dog he'd petted earlier in Union Square followed him down Market Street. ("At least I know dogs still like me," he says, brightly.) To the teen selling light sabers outside Macy's, he's the rare passerby who actually answers his corny sales pitch: "Be a kid again!"
"I wish," Mr. C huffs.
"You don't have to wish," the kid calls after him. "It's six dollars!"
At the end of his evening's walk, Mr. C shuffles up to the shelter to take his post-prison place in the city, greeting another homeless man outside: "Hey, Bill."
Mr. C considers the greeting, concludes, "I'm old," and walks inside to claim a hard seat.
Asked whether he's happy after surviving his suicide attempts, he answers, "I'm kind of in between. I'm hoping things will work out." He figures maybe he's got 15 years left, and he'd like to make them at least peaceful: a roof over his head, some welfare cash in his pocket, antidepressants in his system. With his history, he knows he'll be alone.
Find everything you're looking for in your city
Find the best happy hour deals in your city
Get today's exclusive deals at savings of anywhere from 50-90%
Check out the hottest list of places and things to do around your city