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COVID-19 Hit New York City Homeless Shelters Hard, But Some Are Forced to Stay There

Many city residents who’ve served time for sexual crimes have families who want them back, but a 19-year-old law keeps them away.

A homeless person sleeps near Madison Square Garden on April 29 in New York City.Photo by Angela Weiss/AFP.

John, 54, is glad to be an essential worker even if it means almost no life apart from his job at the moment. He works six days a week at New York City’s 311 non-emergency call center in south Brooklyn, logging one-and-a-half- to two-hour commutes each way on two trains and a bus. He answers questions all day from people who are often scared: Where do I get tested? Why haven’t I gotten my stimulus check? I know someone who’s been exposed to coronavirus—what are the symptoms? John says it feels good to be helping people. (Two subjects of this story requested anonymity out of fear of reprisal. The Appeal has chosen to use first name pseudonyms to identify them throughout the story.)

But John could use some help himself. He lives in a homeless shelter on Wards Island, a place whose shelters are regarded as some of the worst in the city. He tries to protect himself by wearing gloves and a mask, but many people at the shelter have bigger problems and don’t practice social distancing or wear any personal protection. He sleeps in a room with four others, two of whom are using drugs and don’t pay much attention to hygiene. People crowd the cafeteria “five, 10, 20 people at a time,” he says. 

If he could, John would live with his mother at her house in the Bronx, but he has a criminal record involving a sexual offense, and a state law makes large swaths of the city—including his mother’s residence—off limits to many people like him.

Hundreds of people in New York City who were convicted of sex offenses like John are subject to a system of enforced homelessness under the state’s Sexual Assault Reform Act, or SARA. For many New Yorkers, the worst of the pandemic has passed, but homeless people are still particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Even as infection numbers fall statewide, figures through at least mid-June show they were still rising in shelters.  

The SARA law, passed in 2001 and amended in 2006, mandates that many of those with a sexual crime in their past are forbidden from living within 1,000 feet of a school. With schools around every corner, only tiny portions of New York City are legal. It’s unknown how many people it affects. There are about 8,000 sex-offense registrants in the city; one estimate put the number of registrants housed in the shelter system at 550. John says his mother’s house is in one of the forbidden zones, so he can’t live with her. 

John spent 25 years in prison for what the state describes as a second-degree kidnapping in 1994 and what John says was a “very bad judgment call to attempt to have a one-night stand with a 14-year-old plaintiff” when he was 28. Without an approved residence, he was released straight into the shelter system last December.  

Meanwhile, New York City’s shelters remain deadly. Until recently the city was the country’s coronavirus epicenter; its homeless shelters have been an epicenter of that epicenter. COVID-19 cases in shelters spiked 60 percent between April 12 and June 14, according to an analysis of Department of Homeless Services data by the news site The City. COVID-19 death rates among those in homeless shelters are 60 percent higher than among the city population as a whole, according to a report released last month from the Coalition for the Homeless. “Home has rarely been more of a life or death situation,” a United Nations special expert said in March. 

John struggled with crack addiction before prison but got clean behind bars. Today he doesn’t use drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes. But “I still got this monkey on my back because of SARA,” he says.  

Beyond the current danger of exposing people to COVID-19 by forcing them into unsafe shelters, residence bans like New York’s actually may increase the risk of reoffending overall. A U.S. Department of Justice report last updated in March 2017 concluded that there is “no empirical support for the effectiveness of residence restrictions.” The loss of housing and other problems “may aggravate rather than mitigate offender risk,” the report said.  

Registrants and their social workers say the state corrections agency, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), makes a tough situation worse. The agency doesn’t share access to the mapping program it uses to measure distances to schools. That would let registrants and their caseworkers determine whether specific properties are out of bounds before contacting landlords or negotiating leases.

In response to questions from The Appeal, DOCCS released a statement noting that it can’t provide that access because it doesn’t own the mapping program. Robert Newman, a staff attorney at New York City’s Legal Aid Society, rejects that. “With all of the modern technology available to the department I can’t understand why they can’t set up a system whereby a parolee could learn whether an address is SARA-compliant before negotiating a lease,” he says. In a 2018 court dissent, state Court of Appeals judge Rowan Wilson called DOCCS’ system an “unwinnable game of real-estate Battleship.”

Advocates also say DOCCS rejects close-call cases. Michael, 68, has been homeless since getting out of prison in  April 2019 after a 33-year sentence for a 1986 sexual crime involving adult victims. An artist friend has a boat moored off Staten Island—a “museum piece,” he calls it. She offered to let him live there since it isn’t anywhere near a school. But Michael says DOCCS denied the location because of some vague issues with the boat (the inspector mentioned “the plank that goes from the land to the boat” several times, he says). In mid-April, he wrote to the agency to ask it to reconsider given the public health crisis. A DOCCS regional director inspected the boat and again said no, says Michael, telling him that the denial was based on “a number of factors” without being specific. 

Advocates are pressing the state to change the rules during the COVID-19 crisis. A coalition of groups representing indigent clients in post-conviction proceedings in New York City asked the state in an April 14 letter to temporarily suspend the 1,000-feet regulation, especially because schools are closed. Newman says the group has received no response. 

That means for John, the SARA law will remain “excuse my expression, pretty much the thorn in my ass,” he says. “God willing, hopefully I can find some place.”