The man I'll call Martin walks around the corner and back before coming in the front door of the Day Center. That's a common approach by first-time visitors since the building has no sign to identify us—just a partially glassed-in vestibule that might once have been the entry to a defunct dry cleaners.
Right now, though, it's a pretty good bet this is the place he's been sent to learn about services for the homeless, since through the window he can see a man with two black eyes who's too intoxicated to be admitted.
Martin's a small man in his 70s with a round, pleasant, hypertensive face and white hair. Imagine actor Ray Walston, long past his My Favorite Martian days, playing a leprechaun.
Only this leprechaun is towing an oxygen bottle with one hand and grips the handle of three-footed cane with the other.
Martin has toddled over from the Rescue Mission, a few blocks away. The Rescue Mission specializes in recently released prisoners who are trying to get reintegrated into straight society and need a stable address to give their parole officer. He told me upon release he was dropped on a street corner in Denver with a box of his possessions that he couldn't transport, given his walker and oxygen bottle. He went into a store to call a cab, and by the time he came back out, his box was gone.
He doesn't say how he got to Grand Junction, and I don't ask. With new guests, my job is to be welcoming, orient them to our services as well as what they want to know about other help, and collect some basic information.
Are you homeless? How long? Where are you living? Are you a veteran? Disabilities? Employed or looking for work?
We also ask if they have identification and for contact information for another person we could reach in case of an emergency. Many do not have driver licenses. They have a state ID card, a corrections ID or need to replace a lost ID. A fair number list a local relative, and a similar number, including Martin, can't supply the name of anyone at all.
In Martin's case, he had a Colorado Corrections ID and another card that identified him as a registered sex offender.
In my forthcoming novel, Monument Road, a young man working in his sister's day care center is accused of inappropriate touching. Joe Samson, a local reporter, decides to use the case as a hook for a deeper investigation. He interviews the police official responsible for tracking the county's sex offenders:
The captain unrolled his bundle, a county map covered with colored plastic tapes, the sort used to mark legal documents for signature. “Every one of these tabs represents a registered sex offender,” he said. “About half of these are in Grand Junction, the rest in the county’s jurisdiction. The vision is to be able to generate a map from the database and see all our sex offenders in one place.” He paused. “So to speak.”
The map covered McLearn’s desk. In places, the tabs were stuck atop each other, as if a load of autumn leaves had been dumped on a neighborhood. Joe’s eyes scanned immediately to the Redlands. No flags close to his house. He looked for the Crimmins-Diaz address. There was a scatter of red and yellow tabs on Orchard Mesa, but none very near Wee Amigos Day Care.
McLearn said, “County-wide, we’re watching more than four hundred. The number’ll just keep growing, because once these guys register, it’s tough to get off the list. If they stay clean, they can petition for removal, but who wants to be the judge who decided a guy was not a threat—then he goes out and abducts a little girl?”
“So the numbers keep growing, the problem looks worse, the public cries out for more protection and the numbers grow some more.” Joe meant to phrase it as a question.
“You could put it that way,” said McLearn. “I didn’t. There are definitely predators you want to supervise forever. But that’s only about four of the four hundred guys we’re tracking. The rest—especially your child molesters—their risk of re-offending is way lower than your average criminal.”
“And why is that?” Joe asks. “Do the extra restraints work?”
McLearn shuffled through a drawer, then gave up looking. “A while back, there was a big hue and cry over child molesters living near schools and playgrounds. The state did a study before passing a new law restricting where they could live. It found their distance from schools and such didn’t make any difference. You know what mattered most?”
“I’m guessing it wasn’t some extra-special public humiliation,” Joe said. McLearn gave him a sharp look. “I mean, it seems like a funny system, where a paroled drug dealer or murderer could move in next door and you wouldn’t know it, but you get notified about a guy who got a sixteen-year-old pregnant. So what does matter most?”
“Support systems,” said McLearn. “The guys are more likely to succeed if they have treatment, a job, friends and neighbors who support them. The trouble with shaming these guys—they’re more likely to move away from their support network to get out of range of the pitchforks. We have people come here from out of state exactly for that reason. I don’t want to say community notification’s a joke, but most of the people we have here are unlikely to reoffend. For the most part, you’re already going to know the person who molests your child, and it’s someone you trust.”