By Juliana Keeping
Hand Up Ministries in Oklahoma City has removed tents housing sex offenders from its property, but some former residents now live in the woods, ministry officials say.
More than a month after an Oklahoma City ministry was warned to remove tents housing sex offenders from its property, some of the men have moved into trailers.
Others have left; some of them are living at undisclosed locations in the woods, according to ministry officials.
Since a law that prohibits sex offenders from living together in manufactured homes took effect July 1, several dozen offenders at Hand Up Ministries' 2130 SE 59 location have had to find a new place to live.
“We put some of them in trailers that had no electricity or water, but they have an address where they can register,” ministry Director James Womack said. “We're working on getting water and electric to them as fast as we can.”
Today, 143 men live at the trailer park, down from a peak of about 250, Womack said. Previously, the ministry housed two or three men in each trailer. The tents were put up to house men who had no where else to go after the new law took effect, according to the ministry.
In mid-July, the ministry was told the property wasn't zoned for tents.
Frequent inspectionsResidents pay a weekly program fee of $100, said the ministry's founder, the Rev. David Nichols. They receive spiritual support, help finding work and rides to treatment centers. The men have a curfew and must follow rules, such as avoiding drugs and alcohol.
The statute approved by lawmakers in 2011 clarified an existing law designed to keep sex offenders from living together. Police said such arrangements make it more difficult to investigate criminal allegations.
Since the law took effect July 1, the Oklahoma City Development Services Department has inspected the property three times. Ministry officials say they're being targeted by the city and police, but city officials counter that three compliance checks since July 1 is just business as usual.
Inspectors issued a notice of violation July 17 that stated tents are not permitted on the property the way it is zoned, said Charles Locke, a code enforcement manager. Ministry officials also were warned to pick up trash on the property. The nonprofit had 30 days to comply or face a $500 fine.
When city inspectors returned Aug. 27, they found the tents removed, but the trash had not been cleared from the property. Now, a citation is pending, Locke said.
Living in the woodsHand Up Ministries office administrator Jeff Wendel said some of the men who have left the trailer park are living in a tent city in the woods in south Oklahoma City.
“The law was enacted for public safety,” he said, standing in a squalid campground in the woods. “This doesn't seem like public safety.”
Oklahoma law requires those convicted of sex offenses to register as a sex offender each year with the state Corrections Department and local law enforcement. They are required to update their address with a frequency scaled to the severity of their offense. Those without an address — such as the men living in tents — have to register every week, Womack said.
It's not clear how many homeless sex offenders stay in Oklahoma City, said Dan Straughan, executive director of the Homeless Alliance.
About 1,200 registered sex offenders live in Oklahoma City, but they are banned from living in huge swathes of the city. The law prohibits sex offenders from living near schools, playgrounds, parks or child care centers.
Police Chief Bill Citty has pointed out that the roughly 1,000 registered sex offenders living outside of a Hand Up Ministries trailer park have found a place to live.