By John Agar
GRAND RAPIDS -- After _____ was found frozen to death in a salvage yard last year, advocates for the homeless criticized a state law that kept sex offenders out of emergency shelters near schools.
Trouble is, all of the city's emergency shelters are within school zones.
"There has to be an acceptable way, so those people who have a (sexual-assault conviction) are not branded for life, and relegated to sleeping below the bridge," the Rev. Charlotte Ellison, of Heartside Ministry said Wednesday.
Attorney Miriam Aukerman, representing four homeless people with criminal-sexual conduct convictions, filed a lawsuit against Gov. Jennifer Granholm (Contact), Attorney General Mike Cox (Contact), state police Director Peter Munoz and Kent County Prosecutor William Forsyth.
Aukerman requested an injunction to prevent her clients, listed under pseudonyms, from being prosecuted if they stay in a Grand Rapids homeless shelter. She said the law was intended to keep sex offenders from buying or renting homes in school zones, not to prevent the homeless from having a safe place to stay at night.
"We're trying to clarify, if an individual who is homeless and on the sex offender registry has access to emergency shelter," Aukerman said in an interview.
She said her clients did not commit serious sex offenses, with three of them convicted of high-court misdemeanors.
She recently was contacted by a man who left the hospital after stomach surgery, and had to decide whether to risk trouble at a center, or recover on a park bench.
"We're seeing people who are really down and out who have nowhere else to turn," Aukerman said.
Degage Ministries and Mel Trotter Ministries also are plaintiffs in the lawsuit. It was filed in Ingham County Circuit Court before the state asked to move it to U.S. District Court.
State police and the Attorney General's Office, which would represent Granholm, had no comment.
Aukerman, who works for Legal Aid of West Michigan, took action after she and others asked state police to clarify the statute.
Attorney William Farr, representing Degage, said homeless people, shelters and police need clarification of the law.
"It puts everybody in a bad situation. I think there are real questions that should be answered," Farr said.
Grand Rapids Police Sgt. Steve LaBrecque said he doubted lawmakers realized the city's homeless shelters were within school zones. His department is not part of the lawsuit. Chief Kevin Belk, who was out of the office Wednesday, wrote to the state police as part of the request for a ruling.
Belk took no position on how the law should be interpreted.
Aukerman said her clients are in danger on the streets. She described them as:
- "Jane Poe," 23, learning disabled and emotionally and mentally impaired. Food stamps are her only income. She was convicted of attempted fourth-degree CSC. She stays at Degage, with friends or on the street. She has been beaten and raped and is "scared to be out on the street at night."
- "John Doe," 50, periodically homeless, lives on unemployment benefits. He was convicted of third- and fourth-degree CSC nearly 20 years ago. He fears he could "freeze to death" on the street.
- "Robert Rose," 52, a veteran, lives on disability, $270 a month. He was told he can't stay at a home for veterans because of a 2001 conviction for fourth-degree CSC. He also fears freezing on the street.
- "Mark Moe," 46, lives on $200 a month in food stamps. Unable to keep a job because of mental-health problems. He was convicted of fourth-degree CSC. He sometimes sleeps on the street, and "has been so cold ... that he feared death."
Aukerman wrote that all feared prosecution if they stayed at a shelter. They are not considered residents of the shelters, and leave with their belongings in the morning.
Both Degage and Mel Trotter said in the lawsuit they were under the impression those on the sex offender registry cannot stay in the shelters because of the school zone, and are "generally denied admission." The agencies want to set their own policies on admissions to prevent turning away homeless people who "could then die or be injured on the street."
"They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." - Benjamin Franklin