A “modern-day leper.”
Those are his words. Ventae Parrow is branded by the state of Wisconsin as a “homeless sex offender” and, by many in society, an outcast to be feared, warned about, and shunned. He’d have more rights to move freely if he’d killed someone. He’s served his prison sentence (again), but the elaborate network of Milwaukee city ordinances places almost insurmountable restrictions on how and where he can live. Milwaukee sex offenders who fall under new ordinances pretty much can’t live anywhere, except – the map shows anyway – Jones Island wastewater treatment plant, and a few other places that are tiny dots on the map.
Since his release on Oct. 24, Parrow has struggled to find a permanent address that’s not in what he calls the “red zone” – the areas of the city that ordinances deem off limits. That’s pretty much everywhere, and no one in power seems to have the will or path to change it. He’s out but still in, surrounded by virtual bars that are erected by rules and ordinances by officials who respond to people who fear for their kids. Yet, he lives in a country that preaches the virtues of second chances. Or, in his case, more chances than that.
After working an eight-hour shift at a General Mills distribution center on Milwaukee’s south side, packaging Chex Mix products, he must figure out where he is going to lay his head for the night. Every night, to avoid the ordinances that basically mean he can’t live anywhere, he must move.
“That’s what the sex offender is, the modern-day leper,” Parrow volunteers. “[The system] treats sex offenders like modern-day lepers. The society and system don’t want to touch us.”
Parrow said he has eight to 10 places where family and friends let him sleep. He rotates among them daily, relying on the generosity of others, so that he never officially establishes residency and can find somewhere to live. However, he never knows if there will be enough space for him, and every sex offender doesn’t have the family support he does (one Washington County man lived in a car in the Sheriff’s Department parking lot, and a Waukesha County sex offender stayed in a park-and-ride lot). Some nights, Parrow has to sleep either on the couch or floor of a different person’s house, toting along a sleeping bag. Due to his constant moving, Parrow has gone some days, not only without rest, but without food as well.
He’s not alone, and it’s a problem that no one has found a way to fix.
There are only 55 addresses where City of Milwaukee sex offenders have the possibility of living. Most are located on the northwest side of the city; a handful of those are directly on the border of Ozaukee and Waukesha counties in the North. The neighborhood directly between 52nd street and 55th street and mostly around Greenwood Avenue has 27 addresses where sex offenders are allowed to live, about half of the addresses allowed throughout the entire city. That neighborhood is a block west of Tripoli Country Club, a family friendly place which even has a “kids care center” so parents can enjoy their dinner but go without a babysitter.
The numbers show the scope of the issue; city ordinances have become so restrictive that they push many sex offenders to the streets, something officials say is a rising issue of concern. Being on the streets makes them harder to track.
A team of student journalists obtained a spreadsheet from the state Department of Corrections that lists every sex offender, including those who are homeless. There are 23,273 registered sex offenders in the state of Wisconsin. This is where they are clustered:
When it comes to homeless sex offenders, the spreadsheet showed:
– 523 sex offenders are homeless.
– The 53204 and 53212 zip codes in Milwaukee have the most homeless sex offenders “living” in them.
– Milwaukee County has the most homeless sex offenders with 276.
– The City of Milwaukee has 270 by itself.
– 277 offenders have assaulted children in the first or second degree.
– 165 of the children offenders live in Milwaukee County.
-267 of the homeless sex offenders are white, 238 are black, 13 are American Indian, and 2 are Asian or Pacific Islanders.
– The average age of a homeless sex offender is 42.
– 511 of the offenders are male and 11 are female.
“I understand the desire to protect kids and individuals, but I think there’s a better way,” said Public Defender Robert Peterson.
Peterson said the goal should be to help sex offenders reintegrate into society once they serve their time. He said it’s in society’s interest to help them become successful and rehabilitate. In addition, Peterson said that research shows that when sex offenders have stability with residency, there’s an increase in employment and the re-incarceration rates are lower.
Limited living space
About half a dozen addresses where released offenders can live are around Wisconsin Lutheran College off of Wisconsin Avenue on the west side of the city. Visible directly to the north just a few blocks away is the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.
The law that limits where sex offenders can live may be well intended (and, to be sure, some of them have proven to be very dangerous), but the unintended consequences make it more difficult to track where offenders live and leaves some homeless. Not only are those offenders homeless, but now they might secretly be the neighbors of citizens the city is trying to protect. Parrow admits that the homes where he stays are near many children,
At age 12, Parrow was involved in a gang altercation that resulted in the loss of his eye (he was caught in the crossfire) and, in an act of Shakespearean retaliation, the man responsible was murdered by someone else – a literal eye for an eye. His first arrest? Age six. His first memory? Being held by his dad, whom he calls a “hustler,” as he fired a gun at someone else while running down a Chicago street. He’s been in the system, he estimates, for almost half his life. Now he’s technically outside, but his past is still dragging him under.
Michael Miner is the president of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. He works with sex offenders and has spent years doing research with them. However, he’s rarely had patients who were homeless. It’s less of an issue in his state of Minnesota because they don’t have the type of the residency restrictions that some other states do, including Wisconsin.
“The best way to prevent criminal behavior is for individuals to have pro-social ties to their community,” said Miner. “For them to have jobs and reasonable places to live. So the degree to which those don’t exist, you put people more at risk to commit crimes. You take away their motivation to stay law abiding.”
He thinks society is not moving in the right direction.
“I think the whole way that we handle sexual crimes and sexual offenders needs to be re-thought,” added Miner. “All of the laws that exist are based on low frequency horrendous crimes, and they lead to a false sense of security. They are designed to prevent stranger offenses, and we know that the vast majority of sexual crimes are committed by people known to the victim.” According to the Wisconsin Department of Justice, 52 percent of sexual assaults in 2010 were committed by people known to the victim but outside the victim’s family.
Parrow, a 39-year-old former Black Disciple Nation gang member (he calls it euphemistically “the organization”), has a tragic life story and buoyant personality focused today on spirituality.
Speak to him for an hour and the label vanishes almost instantly. He’s a man who has big goals. He’s part of a group that helps ex-offenders, and he’s so articulate, they’ve started using him as a public face. He recently did a radio interview. A believer of the Most High, Parrow is well-informed and shrewd. He does not shy away from his life nor his mistakes and speaks with profundity of thought and of “the system.” He wants things to be different. He wants to be a contributing member of society, he insists.
Upon his release, he was was given a packet that shows houses in what he calls the “white zones.” These are the places where sex offenders are allowed to live. Of the few available houses to sex offenders, the majority were already occupied while others were too expensive. Some were vacant. One-by-one, they fell away as realistic choices. As a result, he must ”bounce from place to place” every night because he’s not legally allowed to live anywhere in the “red zone” over a day.
His movement is restricted during the day too. Going where children congregate is considered a violation that would result in an arrest. He cannot go to malls, parks, museums, zoos, even the movie theater. A spiritual man, Parrow is not allowed to attend church service alone. He must be accompanied and supervised by a legal chaperone – his mother and/or his brother. He must ask permission to go to the library. He also cannot be in spaces where the elderly gather because they are considered helpless and a potential victim to sex offenders. But he can go to the grocery store alone.
“Yes, they way they have it set is that if you help us or connect with us you’re …gonna catch cooties, or you’re going to become a sex offender too,” he said. “That’s the way they look at it, they want the world to believe that too. They want society to believe that too, to think that ‘they’re are the ones you don’t want to touch, they’re filthy and nasty, they’re perverts’ or stuff like that.”
Where sex offenders can live in Milwaukee:
The city ordinance determines residency based on where the offender lived before, who lives there now and the level of the offender’s offense, according to Information Officer Timothy Gauerke, of the Milwaukee Police Department.
Gauerke said that if an offender lived at a certain address with immediate family members before the offense, he or she may be allowed to return to that residence and not be affected by the housing limitations.
In contrast, if an offender attempts to relocate to a different address, then they may or may not be allowed to move in that particular area; that’s when the term “grandfathered” comes into play.
“The issue is, you don’t know if somebody who is on the bus, or on the street, or underneath the bridge is an offender, and the question is, is that worse or better? And I think it is worse based on the evidence I’ve seen,” City of Milwaukee Alderman Michael Murphy, the former Common Council president, says about the law, which he opposes. But, despite such powerful voices, no one has had the will to change it.
Yet another cold winter day in Milwaukee, sitting in a room that held a table, three cabinets and some boxes of documents, all within a building in the north side of town in a massive warehouse called the Milwaukee Enterprise Center is where Ventae, Troy and Marc described the struggles that they face on a daily basis. Ventae, an African-American male, sat in the room, looking as if he was trapped in his own skin as he regaled the challenges of living in a society which has deliberately outcast him.
To comply with his probation, until 2019, Parrow has to complete and turn in a weekly activity log, indicating the addresses he lived at for that week. In addition, as long as he resides in Milwaukee, even after his probationary period, Parrow will have to wear a GPS tracking device and comply with the city ordinance restrictions.
According to the City of Milwaukee’s sex offender residency restriction ordinances, certain sex offenders are to “establish residency within 2,000 feet of any school, licensed day care center, park, recreational trail, playground or any place designated by the city where children congregate.”
The Black Disciples – the game to which Parrow says he belonged – are a Chicago based gang that became famous in 1994 after they executed an 11-year-old member. Robert “Yummy” Sandifer was shot twice in the back of the head by his gang brothers. He got his nickname from his love of cookies. The Black Disciples are unique in that the gang is almost like a religion to its members. The gang leaders are called ministers. There are 300 sets of the Black Disciples within and around the Chicago area, with each set consisting of around 30-40 members. Like most gangs, the Black Disciples take part in the sale of illegal drugs. Unlike most gangs, they rely on the work of mostly underage or juvenile members. Their hand signs look similar to the ones used by Boy Scouts.
Wisconsin residency restrictions mandate that sex offenders not live within 1,500 feet of any property where children might be present. This includes public libraries, swimming pools, public parks and trails.
Within the city of Milwaukee, these restrictions leave little, if any, possible places to live.
When an offender is released into the world, they are still controlled by ordinances that dictate where they can live. To be imprisoned in your own life creates a cycle of bouncing from house-t- house trying to establish some type of pattern and sanity while being shackled with this title of “homeless sex offender.”
“I regret nothing,” said Parrow. “All the things that I have done have made me the person I am today.”
It almost brings to mind the infamous “swimming test” in the 18th century, where witches were avoided throughout the town, officials would drag the accused women to a body of water, and bind and toss them into water to see if they would sink or float. In the same way, released sex offenders are avoided at every turn, tossed to the the streets without housing and resources, with a better chance of drowning than floating.
A random YouTube video posted by the EXPO (Ex-Prisoners Organizing) group shows Ventae Parrow standing in front of a blank wall talking about his experience trying to reintegrate into society after being released from prison. For these offenders, “homeless” may just be a title as some are only technically homeless as they move from house-to-house every day, never staying in one place for more than a day.
They may have Facebook pages that they maintain with daily posts about their lives and friends or even posts rejoicing their release from prison. In addition, they may have significant others who they live with, ignoring the mandates that are set for them.
In an attempt to find other homeless sex offenders, Media Milwaukee reporters reached out to some of them and/or close friends and family members via their personal social media pages.
In particular, in search of one of the offenders whose name appeared in the spreadsheet provided by the Department of Corrections, one of the reporters discovered on Facebook that he was currently in a relationship. In order to contact his girlfriend, we attempted to contact the girlfriend’s daughter.
The daughter responded with the following statement: “B**** get yo a** out my inbox. They not thinking about yo a**. He living his life just fine, and she is fine too.”
In the search to find out how big the issue of homelessness among sex offenders really is, there are a few basic questions that need to be answered. The first of these questions is what is actually being done to rehabilitate them and find them housing. Tristan Cook, communications director at the Department of Corrections, helped to shine some light on this question and more.
As for the rehabilitation of sex offenders in the state of Wisconsin, Cook says that every sex offender on active community supervision has a supervision plan and an agent of record. Their agent will work with them to identify their personal treatment needs and refer them to offense-related programming. Cook says the department’s key goals for all offenders are to provide services that will help them reintegrate successfully into the community.
The next question that comes to mind is if a sex offender is homeless, how are they being tracked and supervised by the DOC? To this, Cook had an answer as well. Registered sex offenders who are homeless are required to provide the ZIP code where they will reside and provide DOC with weekly updates about where they are living. If registered sex offenders are on active community supervision, their agent must approve their residence.
When meeting with their assigned supervisor, there are a variety of tasks a sex offender must complete. They may do required paperwork, pay restitution, verify employment and attendance at treatment or education groups, provide a urine sample, or provide a DNA sample.
Cook says that the department expects all offenders to keep their registration up to date. Failure to maintain a current registration with the DOC is a felony offense, in which a warrant for the sex offender’s arrest is issued. The DOC may refer a case to the local district attorney for prosecution.
Looking for homeless sex offenders
Riverwest and by the Third Ward of Milwaukee is where the homeless sex offenders supposedly are clustered most, according to Corrections records analyzed by Media Milwaukee, but even the community members are unaware of where these homeless sex offenders are living.
According to a document of the Office of the City Clerk, 2330 W College Ave, and 2350 W College Ave are two of the addresses in which these sex offenders are allowed to live in. This is also very near one of the rare ‘white spots’ of the map where the sex offenders are allowed to live, which is a location near the MKE airport. This is a set of apartment complexes which are located right on College Ave, one of the busiest avenues of the area.
Rich Reyes is the building manager of both buildings, who believes that sex offenders should be allowed to have a right to live somewhere, however, they need to be in some type of building full of adults. But, since his buildings are “family oriented” apartment buildings, he stated he would not let sex offenders live in the buildings.
“Its nice to allow families to let their kids roam outside freely without having to worry about it,” said Reyes. “As the owner of the property, it’s a big risk to let someone like that in, being that there are a lot of kids around.”
Another of these white spots in the sex offender map of Milwaukee is located in Jones Island. This is a barren wasteland, only full of construction materials, and salt. Without a livable building for miles, only relying on the protection of the Hoan Bridge, to protect them from rain, or snow in the winter.
State Representative Evan Goyke is also well aware of the problem and says he is working relentlessly to try and find a solution for this sector of the population who is being infringed upon based on something which they’ve already paid their due penalty for. He recognizes the active discrimination that these sex offenders have to go through by society, and says that things should change.
“I would rather have a sex offender living next door to me and know about him, and where he is. Rather than having him living in my alley and not know what he is capable of doing,” said Goyke.
Others have a different take.
“I guess I could assume [they live] down by the river, you see the blankets and the little hidey holes that people built for themselves,” Wendy Mesich, bartender and member of the Riverwest Public House, said. Still, it’s impossible to tell whether the homeless in Riverwest are sex offenders or not. “I mean it’s hard to tell between homeless and just really poor. You know what I mean? I don’t know necessarily that everybody who panhandles, what their story is…” Mesich said.
“You’ll see them every once in awhile,” Public House bartender, Ronell Walker said. “They’ll come in all raggedy and you don’t want to assume they’re homeless, but they probably are. They’ll sit at the bar and have a water or stand outside and ask for cigarettes.”
Mesich is a mother of two daughters, and when asked if she had any final comments on homeless sex offenders in Riverwest, she said, “No… I’m just thinking about my kids.”
Michael Miner thinks the major solution is in residency restrictions.
Residency restrictions are “common sense” solutions to what people perceive to be a frequent problem. However, sexual re-offending does not appear to be one. Sex crimes have the second lowest recidivism rate at an average of 13.7 percent; the average overall rate being 36.9 percent, based on a study with a follow-up period of 5 to 6 years. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, only 5.3 percent of sex offenders re-offend within three years of their release.
This varies by specific offense, with the 15-year recidivism rate at 13 percent for incest perpetrators, 24 percent for rapists, and 35 percent for child molesters of boy victims.
A 1994 Wisconsin law states that a person who is at a high risk of offending again must be admitted into a treatment facility until they are no longer a “sexually violent person”.
“So on some level, residency restrictions are designed to prevent a non-problem,” said Miner. “By preventing this particular non-problem, they cause problems.”
Residency restrictions are not narrowly tailored. People who are a risk to children are not the only ones subject to residency restrictions, it can apply to anyone who has committed a sex crime requiring registration. So many people are subject to restrictions who haven’t committed sexual abuse of children.
“In many states, juveniles are subject to residency restrictions, and in those situations they often can’t live with their families or their families need to move,” said Miner. “So there is a whole variety of unintended consequences.”