Johns Hopkins University Press
  • “The Streets Are My Home”:Black Male Sex Offenders, Hypersurveillance, and the Liminality of Home

In Montgomery County, Maryland, there are approximately 330 individuals who are on the sex offender registry. Of those on the registry, roughly six percent are homeless or transient—the majority of which are lifetime-registered offenders convicted of violent sex crimes and/or ones involving a child. Black men make up nineteen percent of Montgomery County’s population, twenty-seven percent of registered sex offenders in the county, and an overwhelming seventy percent of homeless sex offenders. In this essay, I outline how juridical articulations of deviance produce Black male citizen subjects into perpetually homeless sex offenders who then find themselves lingering on the streets in racialized geographies marked as the proper homeplace for Black sexual deviance and violence. Drawing heavily on eighteen semi-structured ethnographic interviews conducted over two years, my own six years of experience as a shelter worker, and policies of homeless shelters across the county, I chart key strategies Black male sex offenders deploy to navigate and manage the day-to-day living on the streets under the regimes of hypersurveillance that make doing so seem impossible. They use the very liminality of home afforded to them to carve ways to belong to home despite the legal and cultural frameworks that deny them access.

Keywords

Carcerality, homelessness, homeplace, racialized surveillance, resistance, sex offense

Pushing the button intently, hoping to get buzzed into a complex in Baltimore, Maryland, ABC2 News correspondent Joce Sterman patiently waits for someone to let her in but has no such luck this time. She is on a mission, accentuated by the clacking of her pink heels as she briskly walks along the pavement.1 [End Page 33] As viewers watch, it is increasingly clear that there is a sense of urgency; the footage cuts from her swiftly moving feet, to the door, to her speed walking form. At the next residence, a Black woman opens the door. With a printed photo extended toward the woman for review, Sterman immediately goes into action. “We’re trying to find out if you recognize this guy; he supposedly lives down the street from you. Have you seen him before?” Sterman is searching for improperly registered sex offenders and soliciting the help of [predominantly Black] community members. Specifically, she is searching for offenders who are registered as homeless but in fact have a home, thus breaking the law and infringing upon the rights of the general public to know if a sex offender lives near them. More than just cross-referencing the list of registered homeless sex offenders, which was roughly one hundred people in 2010 when the report aired, Sterman is also seeking to enforce the law.

She opens the gate to another apartment complex. The cameras cut to a man standing outside his door at the top of the steps. It is 31-year-old Joshua Bias, an African American male who was convicted in Ohio for sexual imposition and abduction (Bates and Kim 2004). “We’re doing a story about the sex offender registry, and you’re on it and listed as homeless. Can we talk to you about that?” Bias waves his hand as if to suggest he is not interested, but to further illustrate his disinterest—and acute awareness of being on camera—he begins to back into the apartment. His initial verbal response is unclear because just as he starts to speak, a voice-over of Sterman gives viewers all the information they need to know: “That’s Josh Bias, a top-tier offender who was convicted of kidnapping in Ohio. He was listed as having nowhere to live,” she narrates (Sterman 2010).

The interaction between Sterman and Bias is replaced with updates on Maryland’s sex offender registry laws pertaining to homeless sex offenders. This moment has clearly been choreographed as a springboard for Sterman’s segment: Maryland sex offenders who register as homeless or transient have to check in once a week with the registry or local police until they have a verifiable address. The Maryland General Assembly passed the law in 2010 with “people like Joshua Bias” in mind. After a while, Sterman and Bias are brought back into view. This time, Sterman has shifted from being at the bottom of the stairs to being right outside Bias’s front doorway, hand on the doorframe, firmly planted. Comfortable. Authoritative. Bias’s entire frame is completely out of view; he is hiding, tucked away. As if scolding him, she asks, “You’re going to register this address … and comply with the law?”

Moments after Bias’s interaction with Sterman, he updates his address. Days later, he is removed from the property after the property management sees that he is not on the lease for that—or any—unit in the complex. Joshua Bias is now (properly) homeless. But, more importantly, he is in compliance with the law.

Sterman’s anxiety over people like Bias manipulating the sex offender registry is rooted in a broader, racialized cultural panic about the place of sex offenders in society. For the purposes of this essay, what I find equally compelling [End Page 34] about this exposé is the implicit recognition by lawmakers, the general public, and the media that the law cannot fully contain and manage offenders. While the registry certainly creates obstacles to their everyday lives, offenders use various strategies for gaining access to basic needs, joy, and pleasure despite a system of hypersurveillance that attempts to constrain them. These strategies are deployed in specific geographies across the nation and as such take on specific though overlapping meanings.

In this article, I will focus on “people like Joshua Bias,” homeless Black men on the sex offender registry who are trying to find a place to claim as home. I want to think about how the management of homelessness, and thus of poverty, colludes with the management of sexual deviants to produce certain people as outside of home. To do so, I rely heavily on eighteen semi-structured ethnographic interviews I conducted with homeless Black male sex offenders over the course of two years in Montgomery County, Maryland, a predominately white, wealthy suburban county that borders Washington, DC. Montgomery County is roughly forty miles southwest of where Bias was made homeless and consistently ranks as one of the top twenty wealthiest counties in the United States.

In Montgomery County, there were approximately 330 individuals on the sex offender registry in 2017. Of those on the registry, roughly 6 percent were homeless or transient—the majority of whom were lifetime-registered offenders, having been convicted of sex crimes that were violent in nature and/or involved a child. Black men constituted roughly 70 percent of those who were listed on the registry as transient or homeless, despite making up only 19 percent of the county’s population and 27 percent of registered sex offenders in the county. Put otherwise, as of May 1, 2017, there were twenty-one men registered as transient or homeless in the county; fifteen of them were Black men.2 This unequal distribution of homelessness along racial categories is not by happenstance; there has been, and continues to be, a long history of racial minorities searching for, being denied, and yet building a home in geopolitical spaces that are perceived by others as outside of home—in conditions of “homelessness.” Thus, I do not take “homelessness” itself as a self-evident category but rather as one that is complex and indexed by race, gender, sexuality, class, and relationship to the US nation-state. At its essence, “homelessness” is a complicated relationship to “home.”

While scholars in homeless studies have increasingly considered the role of race and gender in the distribution of poverty and homelessness (Gowan 2010; Lyon-Callo 2004; Smith 2012; Vitale 2008), there has not been as active an engagement around questions of sexual difference and deviance intersecting with race and gender to produce homelessness or the conditions under which homelessness occurs. However, there has been a growing body of literature that considers how gay, lesbian, and transgender people, particularly youth, come to experience homelessness. Homophobia and transphobia within the natal home are central themes and noted as catalysts for homelessness (Castellanos [End Page 35] 2016; Matthews et al. 2019; Page 2017). Home is frequently taken for granted as a neutral site that often becomes uninhabitable to sexual deviants due to the “reveal” or the (sometimes forced) “coming out of the closet,” a spatial metaphor that itself implicates the built environment of the home as interstitial to sexuality-making. Sexuality only emerges in this literature as sexual identity—when someone becomes LGBTQ or articulates their LGBTQ identity—as opposed to a category of analysis that helps us understand how home and therefore homelessness get constituted through the management of deviance and difference prior to, and irrespective of, the formulation or visibility of sexual identity.

Departing from these conventions, I am interested in thinking through how race and sexuality intersect as systems of meaning-making to determine the who and the how of homemaking. I take cues from Black queer and feminist scholars and activists who have long made legible the ways in which home is constituted through racialized gendered sexual violence and terror.3 Specifically, the home space for many Black subjects is one that is produced by “domestic violence”—violence often, though not exclusively, at the hands of men like the ones I interviewed. This violence was also experienced by many of the men I interviewed—whether by witnessing it growing up in their own homes, neighborhoods, and institutions or through the violation of their own bodies. Given these entanglements, it is necessary to interrogate home and homelessness through the lens of race, gender, sexuality, and class as they relate to violence.

To intervene in and add to a growing literature on homelessness and sexuality (e.g., Ecker et al. 2018, 2020; Rice et al. 2018; Roche 2005; Shockley 2006), this essay outlines how juridical articulations of deviance construct and produce Black men as perpetually homeless sex offenders who then find themselves lingering on the streets of low-income areas and urban neighborhoods, those racialized geographies marked as the proper place for Black sexual deviance and violence. Staging my research around Black male sex offenders is intentional, as their subject locations help illustrate the need for more intersectional analyses within homeless studies and studies on poverty. Moreover, their narratives help highlight alternative ways of conceptualizing homelessness itself as well as strategies for negotiating life on the streets and life on the hyperpunitive sex offender registry. The latter is at the heart of this essay, as I draw on these men’s narratives to chart the key strategies they deploy to navigate and manage day-today living on the streets under regimes of hypersurveillance and visibility, even when this seems impossible. They do so by mobilizing what Simone Browne refers to as dark sousveillance.

Browne (1995) argues that dark sousveillance operates as a critique of racializing surveillance and works as a way to render one’s self out of sight; it is anti-surveillance and oppositional. Through her demonstration of the historical ways in which race informs surveillance practices as “technologies of social control” organized around and through Blackness, she offers a critical framework for rethinking the appearance and disappearance of Black male sex offenders (4). [End Page 36] According to Browne, dark sousveillance “charts possibilities and coordinates modes of responding to, challenging, and confronting a surveillance that was almost all-encompassing … it speaks to not only observing those in authority… but also to the use of a keen and experiential insight of [surveillance] in order to resist it” (21–22). Browne’s articulation of dark sousveillance provides a theoretical architecture for framing racialized technologies of social control to which I intentionally add the question of sexuality and gender, because as intersectional feminists have long insisted, “whenever we are speaking of race, we are always already speaking about gender, sexuality, and class” (McBride 2005, 87). Thus, for these Black men, developing strategies for resisting hypersurveillance was as connected to their race as it was to their gender, sexuality, and class. These strategies were necessary so that they would not end up like Joshua Bias—being unexpectedly without a home. Instead, these strategies allowed them to claim a type of homeplace that no Joce Sterman or neighbor or law enforcement agency could take away from them.

According to Black feminist cultural critic bell hooks (1989), homeplace is not just a place to live (house); it is also a place where people learn who they are and how they should be in the world (49). Because these men are made to live on the streets (place) vis-à-vis their relationship to the registry, they are marked as homeless and thus without home. However, such a configuration misses the ways in which people create their own sense of home in those places they are not meant to live, which makes hooks’s notion of homeplace instructive here. By deploying strategies of dark sousveillance, these men created their own homeplace. That is, I argue they take advantage of the very liminality of home afforded to them to carve space for belonging and living despite the legal and cultural frameworks that deny them both.

In being attentive to homelessness as a relationship between house and home, I first map out the somewhat overwhelming and tediously complicated nature of the sex offender laws in Maryland. I purposely historicize the multiple changes to the laws, as the majority of my coproducers spent time on the registry during those changes and thus had to continually adapt.4 I do this to help frame the registry as a key site of state-sanctioned hypersurveillance that both is concerned with and produces homelessness through the management of sexual deviance. I then end the essay by illustrating forms of dark sousveillance that the men use to combat such hypersurveillance in order to carve out a homeplace, despite living on the streets—that place not meant as home.

A Brief History of Maryland Sex Offender Laws

Maryland created its first registry in 1995, pursuant to the federal Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Program of 1994. This first rendition was codified under the formerly known Article 27, “Crime and Punishments,” section of Maryland’s Annotated Code. [End Page 37] Building on the national panic and concern around child sexual assault and abduction, the law originally applied only to child sex offenders.5 Registrants were required to provide a signed statement to an offender’s local law enforcement agency within seven days of release from an institution or change of address. The signed statement had to include the offender’s name, list of aliases, address, description of the crime, date of conviction, place of employment, and Social Security number. They also had to submit themselves to the local law enforcement agency so that fingerprints could be obtained and a photograph taken, which had to be included with the signed statement. Provided no changes to their address happened, child sex offenders were required to register annually. Registration was required for a period of ten years. Failure to register constituted a misdemeanor charge that carried up to three years imprisonment and a fine of $5,000.6

On July 1, 1997, the Maryland General Assembly expanded sex offender registration laws to include an additional three categories of sex criminals: offenders, sexually violent offenders, and sexually violent predators.7 These expansions were an attempt to be in compliance with the federal Pam Lyncher Sex Offender Trafficking and Identification Act of 1996 and the Jacob Wetterling Improvements Act of 1997. The new categories were intended to distinguish offenders based on the persistence of the offender, the use and extent of violence, as well as those crimes committed against anyone 15 years of age and under. That is, unlike offenders or sexually violent offenders, individuals falling into the category of “sexually violent predators” were defined both by the severity of the offense and by their prior record, which was understood as indicative of their risk of re-offense.8

Two years later, the Maryland General Assembly enacted new legislation that began to tighten the constraints on sex offenders. Most notably, these amendments increased the length of time sex offenders spent on the registry, expanded registration content, and allowed for information to be posted on the Internet. Previously, the distinguishing temporal difference between registrants was the frequency with which they had to register, as every registrant had to uniformly register for a period of ten years. The new law instead instituted a lifetime registration requirement for certain sexually violent offenders and child sex offenders. For instance, sexually violent predators were required to register in-person every ninety days for life.9

Maryland sex offender laws did not change again in any major, substantive way until 2009–10, when they became more punitive to be in compliance with the federal 2006 Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, beginning with juvenile sex offenders being required to register for the first time.10 The frequency of registration increased to every six months for offenders, child sex offenders, and sexually violent offenders, unless the crime was previously codified as one that required lifetime registration every ninety days. This change was intended to capture all those offenders who were previously only required to register [End Page 38] annually. Every category of offender was required to register in person; there was no longer a mail-in option.11 The General Assembly likewise increased the penalty for failing to register, authorizing any subsequent conviction for failure to register a felony punishable by up to five years imprisonment and a $10,000 fine. Additionally, sex offenders were prohibited from entering any property being used for elementary or secondary education or child daycare, irrespective of the offense, with limited exceptions, such as to pick up a custodial child or with permission from a supervising authority.12

Sex offenders were also reclassified into tiers. Tier I offenders, individuals convicted of relatively minor sex crimes, had to register in-person every six months for fifteen years with the possibility of a reduced term of registration.13 Tier II offenders, individuals convicted of moderately serious sex crimes and/or those convicted of a second sexual offense, had to register in-person every six months for twenty-five years. Tier III offenders, individuals convicted of serious sex crimes, had to register in-person every three months for life.14 Unlike Tier I offenders, Tier II and Tier III offenders could not petition for a reduction in the term of registration. Additionally, the window for registering was reduced from seven days following a qualifying event or release from an institution to three days. The same applied for reporting changes of address. Whereas offenders only had to inform authorities if they intended to move prior to their moving, the 2010 provisions required that they inform authorities in writing of an itinerary preceding any absence from their homes that was to last longer than seven days.15

The Maryland General Assembly also made more stringent retroactivity clauses. This new legislation required registration by any person who qualified as a Tier I, II, or III offender and was under the custody or oversight of a supervising authority on October 1, 2010, or was already subject to registration on September 30, 2010. Additionally, any person convicted of any crime on or after October 1, 2010, who had a prior conviction for an offense for which registration as a sex offender would have been required, was now mandated to register under the new tier system. This provision meant that people could retroactively be added to the registry for committing a non-sexual crime if they had previously been convicted of a sex crime.

The sweeping retroactive registration requirements were not the only jarring changes to reveal the state’s investment in hypersurveilling sex offenders. Also, in 2010, the General Assembly amended the law to reflect a growing concern about homeless sex offenders’ abilities to potentially find legal loopholes in the registry. Prior to 2010, homeless or transient individuals were required to register and had to report a change in address within seven days. They checked into the registry in accordance with their registration requirement by presenting themselves at designated sex offender registration sites, typically a specific police station. Because of concerns that sex offenders would simply lie about their living situations, as demonstrated in this article’s opening exposé, the new iteration of the law required that homeless people register in person with [End Page 39] the local law enforcement unit in each county where they “habitually live” within three days after entering a county, and thereafter “register once a week in person.”16 To habitually live in a place means to live, sleep, or visit that place “with any regularity, including where a homeless person is stationed during the day or sleeps at nights.”17 Further, it includes any place where a person visits for longer than five hours per visit more than five times within a 30-day period. Arguably, a person who works eight hours a day, five days a week, or even just five times a month “habitually lives” at his/her place of employment.

While popular discourse focused on the manipulative sex offenders who would take advantage of their status as homeless, the panic about homelessness, ironically, names the problem with the registry system: registered sex offenders are more likely to become homeless because they often find it harder to secure and maintain employment (Levenson 2008; Zandbergen and Hart 2006). Housing instability, in turn, increases the risk of recidivism (Durling 2006). Additionally, lifetime registered sex offenders cannot be accepted to live in federally subsidized housing, a decision that was made after a 1997 case involving a convicted sex offender in public housing. The offender was charged with assaulting and molesting a 9-year-old neighborhood girl who lived in the same public housing building; this led Congress to ban the admission of lifetime registrants, “the most dangerous” offenders.18 The desire to protect poor people living in public housing therefore helped produce poor sex offenders who live on the streets precisely because their sexually deviant behavior prohibits them from poverty relief.

According to sociologist Trevor Hoppe (2016), Black men are more likely to receive longer sentencing terms and higher penalties for sex crimes and thus are more likely to be on the sex offender registry than white men. This is, in part, because Black men are typically poorer and have less access to quality legal defense. In this way, the sex offender registry is a way to punish the poor along lines of racial difference through the construction of sexual deviance. Moreover, because homelessness is racialized—60 percent of the homeless population in Montgomery County is Black while only accounting for 19 percent of the general population—we have to read the panic about homeless sex offenders as a panic about poverty, sexuality, gender, and race.19 Doing so helps make sense of and contextualizes why homeless Black male sex offenders are disproportionately represented in the county, a suburban landscape that is already difficult enough to navigate while poor.

The shifting sands of the sex offender registry make it difficult to not only narrate but also to navigate. What is clear is that the state has a deep investment in creating ways to target and police sex offenders. As demonstrated by all of its (re)developments, the state intends the registry to be an all-encompassing mode of regulation, but the fact that it keeps changing to fill some perceived void illustrates quite clearly that it is not. In this next section, I draw on a series of interviews I conducted over the course of two years with homeless sex [End Page 40] offenders in Montgomery County, Maryland. I argue that these men challenge the hypersurveilling nature of the registry by using strategies of dark sousveillance expressed through everyday acts of resistance. In so doing, they draw on their keen experiential insight and their unique position as hypersurveilled Black men who are sex offenders and homeless in a predominantly white suburban county.

Doing Dark Sousveillance on the Ground

At over six feet tall and 200 plus pounds, Charles is a big guy. His large frame squeezes into the small booth in the corner of McDonald’s. This is a particular location he no longer visits because he has never been a paying customer. He has been cited a few times for disturbing the peace and disorderly conduct, common petty crimes waged against homeless people when loitering in a place that is open to the public. Charles chose this place intentionally. “I wanted to give a big ‘fuck you’ to that guy right there [he points to a round, middle-aged white man in glasses]. That mothafucka is always riding us for bein’ up in here, like it’s his mothafuckin’ house and we some type of invaders or squatters or some shit” (interview, December 5, 2015). He raises his voice a bit, “DON’T NOBODY WANT TO COME UP IN HERE NO WAY, WITH THIS STALE-ASS COFFEE” (interview, December 5, 2015). He stares at the employee, daring him to say something, holding his cup so that it is visible, staking his claim to this space for today. I sit in silence, wondering what might happen if this escalates but proud to help bear witness to Charles’s belonging. He breaks face, smiles, and apologizes for his behavior. “I’m not a bad guy; these cats in here act like I wasn’t here before them. Like we wasn’t here before them, ya feel me?” (interview, December 5, 2015)

Charles spent time in prison in Florida for “you know … forcin; [his] girl,” he leans in and whispers (interview, December 1, 2015).20 He had visited Florida during college, in 1980, to meet his then-girlfriend and some of their college friends.

It was like a Spring Break trip. … She had a crib, my boys wanted to hit up Miami, and so it seemed like a good time. But then things got out of hand; I got drunk, and I did something I can never take back. … She ain’t deserve that, and I’ll never forgive myself. She ain’t been the same since, moved back in with her mom, started doin’ drugs and shit. I fucked up her life. I did that. I did. I carry that shit with me, and it really fucks me up, too. But then it’s like, who am I to want pity? I ruined a life. She can’t have kids I heard.

(interview, December 5, 2015).21

His words linger. He is trying to collect himself but quickly realizes it is not working. He stands up abruptly and rushes off to the bathroom. Ten minutes later, he returns, eyes pink. “Allergies,” he says with a soft chuckle, then grabs his [End Page 41] coffee and chugs. “I can’t believe these niggas thought I was really that pressed for this stale-ass coffee” (interview, December 5, 2015).

Upon his release in 2005, Charles came back home to Silver Spring, Maryland, where he grew up, only to find out that things were different.

Everything had changed. I mean I know they say life after prison is like comin’ out to a whole new world, but this was some next level shit. It was like wow, this is another universe. This wasn’t home no more. And I ain’t have a place to live. It was wild. I remember thinkin, “yo dumb ass was so quick to get out of prison, you ain’t even have no place to go to. You could’ve stayed yo black ass right there and had three meals, a bed, and a roof over your head” (interview, January 4, 2016).

Charles could not return home in the metaphorical or literal sense—he did not know or belong to Silver Spring anymore. His childhood home had been demolished. What stood there instead was a luxury apartment complex in which he could never afford to live. He was ejected for trespassing after sleeping in the hallways one cold winter, with the threat of arrest if he returned. With an average rent of $1,600 per month for a one-bedroom apartment, Charles’s inability to live in the complex was also indicative of how the rising cost of housing controls where poor, predominantly Black, people can make a home. For Charles, this was intimately connected to his status as a sexual deviant too.

Charles was the first person in his family to go to college. Prior to moving on his own to Washington, DC, to go to school, he lived with his family in a green and white three-bedroom home right outside of downtown Silver Spring. His father worked for the city as a bus driver, and his mother worked at a daycare center. His mother foreclosed on their home following his father’s death in 1992; she could no longer afford to make the payments despite only having two more years to go. His home was seized by the bank and then demolished. His mother passed away in 2006, living in a HUD-subsidized apartment for seniors, one in which she could not allow her son to stay because federal regulations forbid lifetime registered sex offenders from living in federally subsidized housing. She offered to risk it, but Charles would not let her, having already blamed himself for her losing her house in the first place. “She begged and begged, but I just couldn’t see my sixty-four-year-old mother homeless on the streets with me over my mistakes. I slept in the woods that night instead, like an animal. … I remember feelin’ how I felt my first night in prison … like is this about to be my new home for the next twenty-five years, like for real for real?” (interview, January 4, 2016).

Charles’s self-reproach highlights the complicated ways that home and housing function as distinct yet interconnected sites of belonging. His slippage from “this wasn’t home” to “I ain’t have a place to live” to understanding the prison and the woods as “home” suggests that home is much more than just a place to live. Feminist cultural theorist bell hooks takes seriously the slippage between [End Page 42] house and home and attempts to resolve the affective dimensions of home and the built environment of place (or dwelling). Charles was looking for—and lost—what she calls homeplace. For hooks (1989), homeplace is “that space where we return for renewal and self-recovery, where we can heal our wounds and become whole” (49). Indeed, Charles, like all of the men I interviewed, came to homeplace to heal the wounds he had inflicted on his girlfriend, on his family, and on himself, but what he found instead was a system that did not want him; he found out that despite his wanting and yearning that he would have to carve his own, new homeplace—a space for belonging and living—given the legal and cultural frameworks that denied it to him. He found that his low-income mother was clinging to her homeplace, too.

What Charles’s narrative highlights is how access to home is equally mitigated by one’s race and racialized experience, coterminous with one’s sexual history and criminality. More pointedly, throughout the interviews I conducted, there was a continuous theme that emerged around the relationship between urban development and homelessness. Many of the men had grown up in Maryland, scattered throughout Silver Spring, Rockville, and Gaithersburg, three of the largest cities in the county. These were also the locations where they became homeless upon release from prison. Charles’s mother lost her Silver Spring home after she could not afford her mortgage, so he had no home to return to and thus went to the streets. Charles could not afford to live in the area of his childhood home upon release anyway. More than that, returning to the space he called home led him to him being issued a trespass notice, as his lingering Black body on private property marked him as suspect. Here we see how surveillance happens through both the registry (certain sex offenders cannot live in federally subsidized housing) and racialized poverty management (sticking out as a Black man on private, luxury property leads to ejection for trespassing).

Another coproducer, Ben, had a similar experience. When first released, Ben’s sister offered to let him live with her in her newly built condo in the recently redeveloped area of Rockville, close to the metro station. This location was perfect for Ben, who at the time was actively seeking employment but did not have a car to navigate the ever-changing landscape. Public transportation was his best option, and access to the metro opened up possibilities about where he could look. Shortly after he moved in, his sister got a notification from the condo association threatening to take action against her if she continued to let a sex offender live on the property. Not willing to put his sister in the same predicament as him, Ben opted to leave of his own accord.

Having grown up in Rockville and still wanting to be close to his sister, Ben would frequently wander around the area close to her home, stopping in at odd hours of the night for food and to shower because he was worried that the neighbors might see him if he came during the day. Ben did this for a few weeks until one day the police stopped him. Someone reported that a “suspicious-looking man” was “lurking around the neighborhood at night” (interview, January 18, [End Page 43] 2016). The interaction with the police resulted in him being arrested for failure to register—he had not reported that he was homeless. He spent six months in jail with eighteen months of probation.

According to Ben, the encounter taught him to “keep [his] Black ass in the ghetto where I belonged” (interview, January 18, 2016). This sentiment held throughout all of my interviews, with several men referring to similar experiences of being hyper policed in the places where they had grown up. All of these places had gone through a phase of urban development resulting in their racial makeup changing. These changes also made the men stand out more, visibly marking them as not belonging to a landscape that some of them helped physically build through their labor and displacement.22 In this way, as Katherine McKittrick (2011) has argued, we must understand changes to the urban landscape as acts of urbicide that intentionally push out the original inhabitants, throwing them into a state of transience or homelessness, in order to create homes for the supposed rightful inheritors of modernity: white subjects. In framing urbicide this way, McKittrick asserts “the geographic management of blackness, race, and racial difference (and thus non-blackness) hinges on a longstanding but unacknowledged plantation past,” a past that she insists provides a blueprint for the modern city (953). As such, the city itself operates within “plantation logics,” necessarily requiring the policing, surveillance, dispossession, and killing of Black people. The plantation logics of the modern city and its imagined, equally exclusively white counterpart, the suburb—in this case, Montgomery County—result in the surveillance of these men in the name of protecting “victims” of sexual violence, who are constructed as white. This in turn forces the men to exist in a fugitive state and keeps them contained to geographies where the built-in recipients of the supposedly “inevitable” future violence would be low-income Black and brown people, an extension of the sexual logics of the plantation.

The men I interviewed uniformly articulated that the best strategy for avoiding the hypersurveillance that comes with being a Black male sex offender wandering the streets was to blend in or become invisible by aligning oneself with racialized geographies where their bodies did not hail them as suspect. This meant staying in high-density, low-income, predominantly Black geographies—those places already understood as deviant. As an everyday practice, it was impossible for these men to make themselves invisible. When they needed food or sought pleasure or comfort, they had to remove themselves from the proverbial shadows in which they were expected to hide. In the next sections of this article, I will discuss three key strategies they developed to help them navigate and manage life on the streets: 1) refusing to enter shelters and receive social service interventions as a modality for asserting and maintaining self-efficacy; 2) using transience as means of resisting the hypersurveillance built into the sex offender registration process; and 3) using strategic non-compliance with sex offender regulations as a form of self-fashioning to allow them to articulate [End Page 44] identity and desire outside of the registry or their sexual offense(s). These strategies of dark sousveillance enabled them to push back at and sometimes through the very systems that attempted to surveil them.

Refusing Shelter as a Form of Resistance

Paul, like Charles and eight of the other individuals I interviewed, has never stayed in a shelter outside of extreme weather conditions. Since his release in 2011, he has slept on the streets of downtown Silver Spring, two blocks away from the shelter specifically designated to help provide emergency housing for homeless people in the area during the winter months. Paul has had several homeless outreach workers approach him about going to the shelter to receive “life-saving” services, but he always politely declines. He does not want help. “They act like they have all these things they can do for me, but all they have is a bunch of people wanting to be in your business and not have anything for you” (interview, January 23, 2016). When Paul was first released, he stayed at a shelter in the northern part of the county, where he desperately attempted to get into case management services. “They told me they couldn’t do anything for me, ’cos they don’t house sex offenders” (interview, January 23, 2016). Paul’s statement reflects the almost uniform, unofficial policy adopted by most shelters in Montgomery County.

At the time Paul entered the shelter, the county had not begun moving toward a Housing First and harm reduction model of homeless services delivery. In these models, the idea is for shelters to be as low-barrier as possible—anyone can come—and housing providers do not require individuals to address their barriers/obstacles to housing as a condition of receiving it (Tsemberis and Eisenberg 2000). Instead, all providers operated on a housing readiness model that required case managers to assess how ready, and by default, how deserving one was of housing. As such, sex offenders were not often admitted to shelter, as they were almost never deemed ready or deserving of housing. Paul’s current refusal to stay at a shelter is a rejection of social service intervention models that understand him to be without worth or value, as undeserving or not ready. More than this, though, Paul also witnessed first-hand the consequences of accepting so-called “life-saving” services that actually made him more vulnerable not to death on the streets but to death in the shelter.

It was a normal day; I had been at the shelter for 2 nights—it was the weekend so I was waiting until Monday to see about a case manager—and there were all these guys sitting in the day room up at the Big House, and they had these two computers—why am I telling you this, you already know this—and there was this guy.23 Big and just loud like he was tryin’ to make up for something. So there am I minding my business, I think watchin’ the TV or somethin’ and all of a sudden I hear the guy yell somethin’ about a child molester. I don’t pay [End Page 45] him no attention, ’cos he’s always bein’ loud, but then I see other guys walkin’ over to him, and then they’re lookin’ back at me and then lookin’ at the screen, and the staff is goin’ over to look and then one of the guys charges at me from nowhere. I hit my head and was bleedin’ and then another guy kicked me on my way down. I thought I was goin’ to die. It took forever and the police to get them off me. I was pretty bruised up. I went to the hospital and when I came out they told me I couldn’t even see a case manager anyway ’cos they didn’t work with sex offenders. I never went back (interview, February 18, 2016).

Paul was found guilty of visual surveillance with prurient intent—he was identified as one of several men using mirrors to look up the dresses of women in a changing room of a Macy’s Department Store. He was also convicted of unnatural or perverted sexual practices with an animal—he stuck firecrackers in the anus of a few neighborhood dogs that attempted to bite him; the latter incident led to his arrest, onto which they tacked the former charge. Six of the men I interviewed shared stories of being assaulted in a shelter once others found out they were sex offenders. All of the men were called child molesters. None of them had committed—or were convicted of committing—a child-related crime.

In the context of a publicly accessible registration system that requires sex offenders to include their name, whereabouts, picture, date of birth, height, weight, and the address and name of their employer, refusal to engage in services that might—and sometimes do—lead to the revealing of a criminal history, a history from which one can never untether oneself, becomes a critical modality for survival and self-efficacy. That is, despite shelters understanding sex offenders as “unhouseable” and therefore as deserving of perpetual homelessness, these men insisted on their ability to make and create home without help or housing. As Mike, another lifetime sex offender registrant, shared:

These people think I need them to get off the streets, but the streets are my home … and not just because I can’t get an apartment—I’ve had one—it’s because I know the streets, and I don’t have to worry about anyone kicking me off them. These are my streets, too. Out here, we respect each other. I know this corner is so-and-so’s and that tent belongs to this guy and so forth. I don’t have to worry about these people trying to take shit away from me or me proving I deserve to have it. This space is mine, and no one can take it from me (interview, April 3, 2016).

Mike’s insistence that the streets are not just home but also his home, a home that he chooses to claim, refuses a narrative that might understand him as lacking and without, as a literal and metaphorical outsider, and instead suggests that he has accomplished a goal that was understood as unattainable by experts—he found homeplace.

Refusing to accept resources, though understood as counterintuitive by many service providers, functions for homeless men as a critical mode of creating [End Page 46] and maintaining the boundaries of home. To be in a shelter means, often, to be in a space that is constantly defined by one’s sexual offense. Or, put otherwise, it means to constantly be defined by an “obstacle” to housing. Moreover, it means being subjected to heightened levels of surveillance and scrutiny by shelter staff and shelter residents. This sometimes results in public acts of physical violence against offenders. Refusing shelter, then, is a way to find home and safety differently.

Transience as Resistance

In July 2011, the state of Maryland became compliant with the federal standards set forth in the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA) and started to require that all transient and homeless individuals report to a “locally designated law enforcement unit” and register weekly unless living in a permanent shelter.24 This process has led to the hypersurveillance of homeless sex offenders. Not only are they on a searchable registry that can be accessed online, on a phone (there are at least seven downloadable apps that geospatially locate sex offenders), or via a written notification sent, upon request, to a household when an identified offender moves into their zip code, but also checking in to the police station once a week requires a constant, intimate surveillance that no other category of criminal offender experiences. The only way to reduce this ongoing engagement with the police is to be committed to a psychiatric unit, be remanded back to state custody, or have a permanent address. Transience, therefore, heightens surveillance. And yet, the men I interviewed used transience as a way to, contradictorily, resist some forms of hypersurveillance.

Fred was released from prison in 2008. He spent years behind bars after being convicted of sexually assaulting his wife and mother of his four children. Upon his release, he did not have anywhere to go, as his wife, who had not divorced him and was attempting to slowly reconcile with him for the sake of the youngest, 16-year-old daughter, would not allow him to move back into their home. His only relative, a sister, lives in Section 8 housing.25 She allowed him to stay with her for a few days, but when she was asked to verify his address for the registry, she asked him to leave for fear of losing her housing. Between 2008 and 2011, Fred had multiple different apartments, usually room rentals or basement rentals, as the cost of fair market units without a housing subsidy was something he could not afford. Fred’s income fluctuated because he had a hard time maintaining employment once his employer discovered his status—most of the men did not disclose to their employers for fear of shame and to protect themselves from the trauma of disclosure. They also did not disclose to their housemates or landlords. This could result in eviction, as Fred notes:

The first place I got when I got off the streets was this small basement efficiency from this nice white family; I met them at church, and they kinda checked [End Page 47] on me and took care of me. They knew I was on the streets and that I had been in the pen and such so they helped me get a job and let me rent their basement. … One day their daughter was talkin’ to [the mother] and she said somethin’ along the lines of, “I can’t come home for Christmas with you havin’ that rapist in the basement” and that got them to talkin’ and next thing I knew I was back on the streets (interview, March 1, 2016).

Fred’s experience was not unique. All of the men referenced having housing at some point and then losing it once their landlord or friend or coworker or neighbor figured out (or presumed to have figured out) their crime. “So I started to figure goin’ into a livin’ situation that I probably only have such-and-such long to stay, so I would get what I needed out of it—maybe some place for the winter or a place to, you know, bring my daughter and then I’d sort of go” (interview, March 1, 2016). Fred began signing only month-to-month leases, so that he would not be caught off guard by being asked to leave. Living in the break, in the perpetual liminal space between being housed and then unhoused, made him feel safer.26

You don’t know how many times, once you put down that address, people start to change, start to treat you differently. Your neighbor that used to talk to you, she slowly starts talkin’ less, starts to jump a lot more around you. The kids start to make up crazy stories about you. I’ve gotten notes and death threats, blamed for things I’d never done. I figured to hell with all that mess, so I don’t stay in one place that long. I just get what I need and keep it movin’. It’s easier that way. It hurts less (interview, March 6, 2016).

Being untied to a place was a critical survival strategy for these men, as it allowed them to create an ephemeral sense of belonging, knowing that there was an inevitability of the reveal, of the “knowing and speculating,” as Charles described it, of their sexual crime (interview, January 4, 2016). Settling down meant constantly feeling watched and scrutinized, policed, and surveilled by neighbors and landlords as well as strangers walking down the streets. Having to check into the police station once a week, while difficult and degrading, was easier to process than the constant uncertainty of whether or not they would find themselves and their belongings back on the streets. Choosing transience was choosing control.

Non-Compliance as a Form of Self-Fashioning

Navigating the daily life on the streets for these homeless Black male sex offenders was just as much—if not sometimes more—about creating home and controlling the terms under which homelessness happened as it was about recreating themselves. Because there is a prevailing popular myth about Black men as sexually aggressive and violent persons (Duru 2004; Hodes 1997; Woodard 2014; [End Page 48] Wriggins 1995), they frequently discussed having to negotiate sexual intimacy differently. Robert, who was convicted of the possession and distribution of child pornography—he shared photos and videos of adult women posing and performing as underage schoolgirls, representations that were indistinguishable from actual minors—spoke at great length about how the sex offender registry makes it hard for him to find sexual intimacy.

Everyone thinks I’m a rapist or some type of child molesting monster—I have two kids, for fuck’s sake! But they see I had child porn and then it’s like, “Oh he likes to touch little girls,” and I ain’t ever touched a little girl in my life. I just had this side hustle, and I didn’t even know that shit was illegal. The girl was a grown ass woman. And now when I’m tryin’ to pick up someone, it’s hard enough I’m homeless and shit but now it’s like people think I’m some kind of, you know, fucked-up pervert (interview, April 9, 2016).

His tone and tempo escalated the more he talked about it, but it was clear it struck a chord with him, with most of the men. “This checking in every week shit makes it hard, but sometimes—between you and me—I just tell them whatever” (interview, April 9, 2016). Robert’s confession of “telling them whatever” suggests, without him blatantly stating it, that he often falls into non-compliance with his registry requirements to obscure his location for the sake of intimacy. Charles referred to it as “flying under the radar” (interview, January 4, 2016). Many of the men had deep concerns about being seen as anything other than a sex offender or a “child molesting monster,” as Robert put it. The registry makes it hard for them; they all discussed having a romantic interest and at some point being confronted with their status—whether by their own admission or by being discovered. In order to “really get to know someone to ease the blow,” as Fred described it, many of the men would intentionally register in a different county or in the District of Columbia, with the hope of prolonging the inevitable.

It doesn’t always work … sometimes people just Google you, and it’s right there … more people are doing that nowadays, and other times it’s like you really have a chance to get to know someone, to maybe even hit it off and get a date, maybe some sex if that’s what y’all want, without them being worried you’re ’bout to rape them or some shit. It’s like, for a second, you’re normal. And then they find out you live on the streets. And then that you’ve done something 20 years ago that you ain’t proud of, and it all gets taken away, but for like 3 weeks you was normal. Maybe a few months (interview, March 6, 2016).

The desire to be something other than sex offender, to be “normal,” was salient throughout all the interviews and interactions I had with these men. All of them, at one point or another, used their liminal relationship to home and their acute relationship to the registry to their advantage as a way to refashion and redefine themselves, to create a sense of home that was otherwise denied [End Page 49] to them, and to resist modes of hypersurveillance that otherwise destabilized their interpersonal connections and their relationship to housing.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating examples of this self-fashioning was Marcus. Marcus was a lifetime registered sex offender, having been convicted of raping his now ex-wife. He was convicted when he was 21. He did not go into detail about the terms of his sentencing, but he was very clear to state that the charges were “bullshit” (interview, June 4, 2016). As if to demonstrate how “bullshit” they were, he repeatedly mentioned that he and his ex-wife still sleep together and have, since his release, had a baby together. Marcus wanted very badly to have a child despite knowing taking care of one would be very difficult for him. His desire to do so was about his ability to recreate his identity and his legacy by making amends for his past.

I am not who I was all them years ago. I’m a father now, somebody’s daddy, somebody’s role model. It’s like … wow, I can do this all differently again. I’m a father first, all this other stuff, it don’t matter. I’ma do right by my baby girl, and I’ma make sure she carries on my name, that she knows her daddy is a good man, that he loves her, and that none of these little wannabe gangstas or thugs are gonna touch her. I’m gonna teach her how to be loved—the right way. It’s like I can sleep easier at night knowing I have a purpose (interview, June 18, 2016).

Marcus went on to talk about all the things he planned on doing with her: taking her to prom, teaching her how to drive, showing her how to eat crabs, “the little shit” that makes a man feel like he matters (interview, June 18, 2016). His spirit lifted as he talked about the endless possibilities for his and her future, even though he was often rushing off to do some under-the-table construction job so he could help buy things she wanted. His present condition of homelessness and his desire to provide for his daughter seemed at odds with one another. I could not help but note to myself that he was actually absconding from the law, and should he ever be arrested, he would likely not see his daughter for quite some time, prolonging or perhaps altogether forestalling his vision. It was clear that Marcus was living for his daughter and refashioning himself not as rapist, but as father.

By redefining himself in relationship to his family rather than the law or his criminal history, which forecloses possibilities for his future, Marcus’s willful act of refashioning constitutes a mode of anti-surveillance. He works in direct opposition to his sex offender status to reconstitute himself as a father, provider, and a sexual subject capable of showing and practicing desire in non-violent terms. Moreover, by embracing the framework of fatherhood, he bucks the popular myth of the absent Black father. He is very much present in his daughter’s life even as his status on the registry marks him as unable to be located. His daughter knows exactly where he is and vice versa. [End Page 50]

By turning to the various strategies these men deploy to turn surveillance on its head, my intent is to draw attention to the limitations of the law, even as it attempts to be totalizing. Put otherwise, as demonstrated in the former half of this essay, the law has morphed over time in multiple ways in an attempt to constrain sex offenders. These constraints, to me, speak to the inability of the law to fully capture or define sex offenders despite always trying to do so. That is not to say that the robustness of the law, engendered through bureaucratic processes that expand its terrain, does not at times feel totalizing. Rather, my intent is to point out that the Black male sex offenders with whom I engaged also lived, imagined, desired, and found homeplace in spite of the law’s attempt to constraint them. They did so by using the limitations and contradictions of the law against itself, whether in court, through transience, or by refashioning their identity differently than the law or the popular imagination allows. My attention to their experiences seeks to open and expand conversations around poverty more broadly and homelessness in specific to consider the role of sexual deviance and difference in determining who gets access to home and on what terms.

Terrance Wooten

Terrance Wooten is an assistant professor in the Department of Black Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is currently working on his first book manuscript, which examines how those who have been designated “sex offenders” and are homeless in the Maryland/DC area are managed and regulated through social policies, sex offender registries, and urban and architectural design. He can be reached at terrancewooten@ucsb.edu.

Acknowledgements

I am grateful to Christina Hanhardt, Michael Casiano, Ashley Hufnagel, A. Anthony, and Rebecca Wanzo for their careful readings and thoughtful feedback at various stages of this article. I am also deeply indebted to Sarah Tobias and Nicole Fleetwood as well as to the anonymous reviewers for pushing this work. Thank you to my coproducers for allowing me to share your stories and for holding me accountable in the process.

Notes

1. The focus on her pink heels helps create an aesthetic juxtaposition of the vulnerable white femininity Sterman embodies with the ruggedness of the urban landscape she walks and the Black masculinity of Bias.

2. The average over the two years tended to be twenty homeless sex offenders broken down racially as follows: fourteen Black, three white, and three Latino.

4. I refer to all the men I interviewed in this way to acknowledge their role in the process not just as informants but as people who were crafting their narratives alongside me, correcting me when I got something wrong, and even sometimes physically writing out a quote to save me time or energy. All of the coproducer names mentioned in this article are pseudonyms.

5. Child sex offenders denotes anyone who had been convicted of child sexual abuse, any number of sex crimes against an individual under the age of 18, and anyone who had been convicted of a crime in another state that would constitute one of the aforementioned violations.

6. 1995 Md. Laws ch. 142.

7. 1997 Md. Laws ch. 754.

8. Ibid.

9. 1999 Md. Laws ch. 317.

10. 2009 Md. Laws ch. 524.

11. 2006 Md. Laws Sp. Ses. ch. 4.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. 2010 Md. Laws chs. 174, 175. I have placed these descriptions into commonly described terms around “seriousness,” however, for a legal definition: “Tier 1 sex offenders are individuals convicted of a sex offense not included in the other tiers. The law defines a sex offense as 1) a crime involving a sexual act or sexual contact with another, 2) specified crimes against minors, 3) specified federal crimes and military crimes, and 4) attempt or conspiracy to commit one of them. Certain foreign crimes and certain crimes involving consensual sexual conduct are excluded, but certain juvenile adjudications are included. Tier II sex offender is someone convicted of an offense punishable by more than one year in prison that 1) is committed against a minor and is comparable or more severe than one of the following federal crimes or attempt or conspiracy to commit one of them: sex trafficking, coercion and enticement, transportation with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity, or abusive sexual contact; 2) involves using a minor in a sexual performance, soliciting a minor for prostitution, or producing or distributing child pornography; or 3) occurs after the offender became a Tier I sex offender. Tier III sex offender is the most serious classification. These sex offenders are convicted of an offense that is punishable by more than one year in prison and 1) is comparable or more severe than one of the following federal crimes or conspiracy or attempt to commit one of them: aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual contact against a minor under age 13; 2) involves kidnapping a minor, unless the actor is a parent or guardian; or 3) occurs after the offender became a Tier II sex offender.” See Reinhart 2006.

16. CP 2010 § 11–705(d). Section 11–705(d).

17. Ibid.

20. In Florida, the charge itself is “sexual battery,” an umbrella charge for a series of sexually violent charges, including rape.

21. Charles later disclosed that he was not even sure whether or not her inability to have children had anything to do with him, nor was he even sure if it was true. However, there was an implied connection between her inability to reproduce and his sexual assault, even though he noted that the act itself was not physically heinous or forceful in nature. Rather, because he was understood to be a rapist, the extended assumption was that he had caused her to not be able to bear children. The murkiness of details and quick conclusion of causality illustrate the probative force associated with simply being labeled a rapist; his being a rapist confirmed and made sense of a narrative that had never been verified—so much so that he internalized that narrative and blamed himself for it despite also being dubious.

22. It is very common for individuals, particularly men, who are experiencing homelessness to engage in manual labor jobs, or “day labor,” as a way to earn income while on the streets, in shelter, in temporary residence, or permanently housed. This is often the case because these types of jobs do not require extensive criminal background checks, are contingent, and are in many cases paid under the table as part of the formalized informal economy. Many of the men I interviewed had engaged in some kind of manual labor that involved construction. In this way, they were frequently helping to literally build the environments from which they were also being excluded from or surveilled in. For some of them, these environments and landscapes were places they had previously called home, prior to gentrification and these new (sub)urban developments.

23. “Big House” is the common name among homeless men for the main men’s emergency shelter, located in the northern part of the county.

24. CP 2010 § 11–705(d). Section 11–705(d).

25. Section 8 includes both tenant-based housing and project-based housing; the former is the housing choice voucher program wherein recipients receive a voucher that they can use to locate housing. The latter is a form of federally subsidized housing that is property-specific. His sister lived in the latter.

26. I draw here from Fred Moten’s In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, wherein he describes “the break” as a liminal space wherein “a revaluation or reconstruction of value, one disruptive of the oppositions of speech and writing, and spirit and matter” occurs (Moten 2003, 14). I understand the Black male sex offenders as navigating and creating their own breaks wherein they are revaluing and rearticulating their own ontology.

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2151-7371
Print ISSN
2151-7363
Pages
33-55
Launched on MUSE
2021-05-26
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