Wed, Sep 30, 2009 - Page 7 News List

Homeless US sex offenders forced to camp in woods

AP , MARIETTA, GEORGIA

A small group of homeless sex offenders have set up camp in a densely wooded area behind a suburban Atlanta office park, directed there by probation officers who say it’s a place of last resort for those with nowhere else to go.

Nine sex offenders live in tents surrounding a makeshift fire pit in the trees behind a towering “no trespassing” sign, waiting out their probation sentences as they face numerous living restrictions under one of the nation’s toughest sex offender policies.

“It’s kind of like a mind-game, it’s like Survivor,” said William Hawkins, a 34-year-old who said he was directed to the campsite two weeks ago after being released from prison for violating probation by failing to register as a sex offender in Georgia.

The muddy camp on the outskirts of prosperous Cobb County is an unintended consequence of Georgia law, which bans the state’s 16,000 sex offenders from living, working or loitering within 300m of schools, churches, parks and other spots where children gather.

It’s not the only place in Cobb County where offenders can live — there are hundreds of other sex offenders throughout the county living in compliance with the law. But Ahmed Holt, manager of the state’s sex offender administration unit, calls the camp a “last resort” for homeless offenders who can’t find another place to live that complies with the law.

He said probation officers direct them to the outpost if other options fail, such as transferring to another county or state or sending them to a relative’s place that meets the requirements.

Homeless shelters and halfway houses are often not an option, he said, because of the restrictions that bar them from being near children.

Critics say it’s an example of how laws designed to keep Georgia’s children out of harm’s way create a hazard where penniless sex offenders live largely unsupervised at the government’s urging.

“The state needs to find a responsible way to deal with this problem,” said Sarah Geraghty, an attorney with the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights who represents another man living in the camp. “Requiring people to live like animals in the woods is both inhumane and a terrible idea for public safety.”

On Monday, after The Associated Press’ story was published, state officials told the sex offenders they had 24 hours to leave the property, Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren said.

Warren said the decision was made by the Georgia Department of Transportation, which owns the property, and he was uncertain where the offenders would go.

“It’s not up to us to tell them where to live or not to live unless they are in violation of the ordinance,” he said. “It’s not my job or my responsibility or obligation to tell them where to live.”

Geraghty said she had found only one homeless shelter in the state that meets the residency requirements for homeless sex offenders.

The shelter is in the northwest Georgia city of Rome and has only two beds, which are often unavailable, she said.

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