Earlier this month, KHOU reported about the proliferation of sex offenders living in Houston’s Sunnyside neighborhood.
Sunnyside residents are right to be worried. Many of these guys have long histories, and recidivism is a very serious concern. On New Years Day, sex offender Larry Allen Rickets allegedly kidnapped and murdered Becky Hamilton. And sex offenders aren’t the whole story. An Urban Institute Study from 2004 found that a quarter of Houston’s ex-convicts are released to the City’s poorest neighborhoods.
There are many reasons poor neighborhoods absorb ex-cons. Ex-convicts are likely to be poor. They can’t afford higher rents in upscale neighborhoods. Landlords in these places don’t always screen tenants, so there is no protection on that front. Meanwhile, Houston has no limits on where sex offenders and ex-convicts can live (something the residents of Sunnyside are asking for). The only protection is from a 1994 state law that creates 1,000 foot “child safety zones” around places where children congregate – and the situation in Sunnyside suggests it may be too weak.
Unfortunately, it may be an uphill battle for Houston to put its own limits on where ex-cons can live. Miami took this approach, with a 2005 ordinance that prevented sex offenders from living within 2500 feet of a school. But they didn’t follow up with a facility or halfway house to accommodate the offenders. Miami’s sex offenders wound up living under a bridge, with no sanitation or running water. The City was sued.
As Houston moves into the 21st century, this is an issue we must address. We’ve got to move past the “ex-cons have to live somewhere” mentality, and discuss what our options are. Just because a neighborhood is poor doesn’t mean it should be a “dumping field for anything that’s negative.” (as Sunnyside Civic Association President Travis McGee puts it). Surely there’s something we can do.