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Sex offender who spent time living along Red River says Fargo lacks available housing

FARGO - In the roughly two weeks he was living on city-owned land along the Red River, Jesse Syverson couldn't help but think he might be better off if he'd just land back behind bars.

FARGO - In the roughly two weeks he was living on city-owned land along the Red River, Jesse Syverson couldn't help but think he might be better off if he'd just land back behind bars.

"When you're living on the river, it's hard to look at freedom the way you do in prison," said Syverson, 24, a high-risk sex offender who was released July 31 but wasn't able to find a place to live until Monday.

He was constantly caked in mud while looking for a job - a friend in town called him "dirt boy." He also was worried about retribution. As state law requires, the police notified the public of his location - about 10 feet off the bike path between Second and Third avenues north, east of the Howard Johnson hotel.

"Everyone knows I can't lock my door. I don't have one," Syverson recalled in an interview Friday.

Syverson said his trouble finding a place to live is an indication of a larger issue - a lack of housing options for sex offenders, to whom few landlords want to lease and even most homeless shelters will not take in.

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"If people are really worried about sex offenders, you have to allow them a roof over their head," he said. "There's no greater risk than a homeless sex offender."

Eventually, police helped him find a rented room in a north Fargo house that's often home to sex offenders - 1002 28th St. N., a block east of Madison Elementary - but before he ended up on the river on the advice of officers, he was hoping he could stay at a shelter long enough to earn cash for an apartment deposit.

A prison official had told him the Gladys Ray Shelter in Fargo allowed sex offenders, but he was only allowed to stay there one night, Syverson said. Of the metro's shelters, only Dorothy Day House in Moorhead lets sex offenders remain long term, and it only has 10 beds, he said.

Jan Eliassen, director of Gladys Ray, said that while she recognizes "everybody does better when they have a home," the shelter allows sex offenders just two stays every six months to avoid potential outrage if a police notification came out with Gladys Ray listed as a sex offender's residence.

Since the shelter already engenders controversy as the only area shelter that houses homeless who have been drinking alcohol, it's a matter of priority-setting.

"It certainly isn't the answer. It's what we can do right now," Eliassen said.

That concern speaks to the main complaint Syverson has about his difficulty finding a residence - a lack of discernment about what an offender actually did.

A former Bismarck resident, Syverson in 2008 was convicted of a felony and a misdemeanor count of possessing child pornography in Burleigh County District Court - the felony stemming from thumbnail photos located during the sentencing investigation of his misdemeanor. He said the images were not of any pre-pubescent children.

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While acknowledging he was committing a crime, he maintains he's little risk to reoffend and no danger to children. He claims to be a Level III in large part due to having had a probation revocation in early 2009 for using the Internet.

"Don't just bundle us into one pile," he said.

An email message for the president of the Madison Elementary PTA was not returned Friday afternoon.

Syverson said that even having a few extra beds set aside for sex offenders at a homeless shelter would be a big improvement.

Eliassen said Gladys Ray could potentially revisit its policy on sex offenders, but what she would prefer is a broader community push for more transitional types of housing for offenders.

Craig Richie, a lawyer in Fargo who was denied the required city zoning permit for such a facility last year after it brought widespread complaints from residents in the area, said he doesn't see that happening before another high-profile sexual crime is perpetrated by an off-the-grid offender.

Richie said he believes it is a case of politics trumping reason, as the officials who work with sex offenders - probation agents and police - tell him it's a badly unaddressed need.

"The drum needs to keep banging. What are you going to do?" he said.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535

Related Topics: CRIME
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