Around 10 a.m. last Monday, 52 year-old Thomas Pauli was found frozen and lifeless in a Grand Rapids parking lot. As a registered sex offender, he couldn’t enter two of the city’s homeless shelters because of their proximity to a local school. His status as a sex offender left him nowhere to turn. While many sex crimes are serious offenses, they should not be accompanied by a legal and social stigma that leaves a human being with no choice but to freeze to death. To ensure this never happens again, the state government must change the way it treats homeless sex offenders.
Two of Grand Rapids’ homeless shelters, the Guiding Light Mission and Mel Trotter Ministries, can be fined or even shut down for admitting sex offenders like Pauli. That’s because both shelters are located within 1,000 feet of Catholic Central High School. State law prohibits sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of a school, and staying the night at Guiding Light and Mel Trotter falls under this category. On top of this restriction, Mel Trotter can’t admit sex offenders because it houses women and children. Before his death, Pauli was allegedly seen in line at these shelters, but officials say they would have had to deny him a bed.
It is tragic that Pauli could not enter either shelter simply because of their locations. Restrictions on sex offenders should be placed to protect civilians — not harm the offenders themselves. But no matter how much the shelters would like to help these people, state law is preventing them. The stigma placed over sex offenders is life-altering, and regardless of one’s stance on sex offender laws in general, Pauli’s death should serve as an indicator more must be done to balance the care of these people with the state’s safety concerns.
This is clearly a difficult matter for state law, the shelters and homeless sex offenders. On one hand, the state has some legitimate safety interests at heart, and some good reasons to keep school zones and certain shelters safe from sex offenders. But leaving sex offenders with no allowable homeless shelters during Michigan’s harsh winters is hardly an acceptable consequence.
In this case, the homeless shelters’ proximity to a school forced them to turn away Pauli. The best compromise would be for the state to make sure all homeless sex offenders have somewhere to turn. Whether that means changing the law to allow these shelters to take in sex offenders, setting aside funding to build homeless shelters outside the school’s radius or some other compromise, the state has a responsibility to take care of these people.
Pauli’s death was not the law’s intention, but it was a consequence of policies that discriminate against sex offenders and leave them with no way to live in our society. This mentality toward sex offenders is inhumane — they may have made mistakes, but they are still human beings. Homeless sex offenders are in just as much need as other homeless people, and laws need to change to provide them with better options for care.
This death could have been prevented if the state government had not created an environment in which Pauli could not enter the available homeless shelters. By paying attention to the location of homeless shelters and how they relate to restrictions on sex offenders, society can provide a more humane way of life for all homeless people.