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Purpose of house stuns the neighbors

By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 2, 2000


TAMPA -- Neighborhood kids used to toss around a football with the men living at 1606 E 29th Ave. That was before parents saw their rap sheets.

"For months, the house was a puzzle," said Mary Towler, 44, a single mother who lives across the block with three teenagers. "Nobody knew what was happening there."

The news, as neighbors saw it, wasn't good.

It turned out to be a halfway house run by Tampa Crossroads, an agency that provides treatment and assistance for criminal offenders. Of the five men living there, the agency says, one is a registered sexual predator, and two others are sexual offenders.

Next door: a day-care center.

"They betrayed the trust of the public," said Sandy Ramos, president of the Ybor Heights Civic Association. Ramos, like many of the 20-odd neighbors she was speaking to at a Wednesday night meeting of the association, wanted to know why no one told them when the halfway house came to their neighborhood in November.

Many residents didn't find out sex offenders were living down the block until August, when police, prompted by the law, told local schools and day-care centers that registered sexual predator Michael D. Williams, 37, had moved in.

Williams' record shows convictions dating back to 1989 in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas on charges of false imprisonment, lewd acts in the presence of a child and fondling a child.

Word spread quickly, and in September council member Gwen Miller asked the city's zoning department to investigate. The zoning department, in turn, decided the halfway house was improperly zoned -- as a single-family residential property, rather than as a professional residential facility -- and slapped it with a zoning violation.

Council member Bob Buckhorn, speaking at the Wednesday night meeting at the Boys & Girls Club on 15th Street, assured residents the city was taking action to close the place down. He said he was astonished to learn it was operating next door to a day-care center.

"This is just the wrong people, in the wrong place, at the wrong time," Buckhorn said. "I don't know how it slipped through the cracks, honestly."

Dan Kane, executive director of Tampa Crossroads, which provides housing for about 50 offenders in Pinellas and Hillsborough, said he will meet with zoning officials next week in hopes of resolving the matter. The agency has a right to appeal the city's ruling.

Kane disputes that city's definition of the house, saying "there are no professional services delivered there. . . . The only need we are really trying to meet in that house is giving people who need a place to live a place to live."

Kane said recovering criminals are most dangerous when they are in an unstable living situation. He said he understands why neighbors are concerned, but added: "We are trying to provide an aid to public safety, period. We are not creating these folks. They are being released from jail and prison and they are going to be living in our community."

"If they're going to reoffend, they're going to reoffend, and I think it's less likely to be next door, where they're known," he added.

Youlanda King, one of the concerned neighbors who showed up at Wednesday night's meeting, isn't so sanguine.

"It frightens us to know that all this time, we've been sitting here like sitting ducks," said King, a mother of two. "We thought it was a rooming house."

Carolyn Young, who runs the day-care center out of her home, said her own kids used to play football with the men at the house next door. It seemed harmless at the time. Now, she said, she doesn't see the residents of the halfway house come outside much anymore. "They keep a low profile," she said.

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