The house meeting begins promptly at 7 p.m. Mickey paces the living room with a clipboard in one hand, a cigarette in the other. His three newest housemates—Stephen, Hop, and Larry—sit before him. “When you all came to this house, you begged me to move you in,” he says. “Right or wrong?”
“Right,” the men mumble.
“I interviewed everybody, explained how we do things, the whole fucking works. The problem I got right now,” he continues, “I spent three hours cleaning the whole fucking house today. The kitchen was a fucking disaster. I don’t want to see that shit no more, because I will take the microwave, the dishes, the pots and pans, everything out of there, and I will lock it in the basement so we have nothing.”
The men slouch in their chairs and stare at the angelfish darting around a tank in the corner of the room. Mickey plunges ahead, railing against a litany of slovenly offenses. Only Hop offers a meek defense. “I’ve just been here a few days. I’ve always cleaned up after myself.”
At first glance, this could be a scene out of just about any place where strangers live together—a college dorm, a group home, an apartment full of roommates. But the ordinary feel of the meeting belies the strangeness of the situation; all of the men in the room are convicted sex offenders.
This house, in Coram, New York, sits at the center of the largest cluster of sex offenders on Long Island. As of mid-December, according to the state’s sex-offender registry, there were 45 high-risk sex offenders living in this hamlet, seventeen on a single block. And this house has the dubious distinction of holding the highest concentration of offenders in the neighborhood—seven of its nine residents have a sex offense on their rap sheet.
The men—all of whom asked to be referred to by their first names or nicknames for fear of harassment—don’t look particularly menacing, but their stories certainly are: Larry was convicted of raping a 4-year-old girl in 1983, Hop went to prison in 1982 for sodomizing a girl, and Stephen was convicted of rape in 1985. Mickey, 46, also did time for a sex offense. His rap sheet, which extends back to the early eighties, features mostly burglaries and DWIs, but in 2000, he was convicted of sexual assault for pushing a 16-year-old girl into the woods and trying to pull down her pants before she managed to escape.
These men live in this house because, for better or for worse, they have been cast out by society. The nature of their crimes guarantees that they will be identified as sex offenders—or, as they sometimes call themselves, “S.O.’s”—for the rest of their lives, their names, photos, and addresses, along with the particulars of what they’ve done, all available on the Internet. In Suffolk County, they are prohibited from living within a quarter-mile of a school or playground or day-care center. As long as they’re on parole, they can’t leave the county or move in with friends or family who have kids. And once they find a place to reside, the police start knocking on doors to inform neighbors that there is a sex offender in their midst, which often leads to their eviction.
Against this bleak landscape, Mickey’s house is something of a refuge—a place where sex offenders have banded together, trying to help themselves by helping each other. “We ain’t got nobody but ourselves,” says Mickey. “Nobody would help one bit. So we just did it on our own.”
This neighborhood of Coram has never had much to recommend it—just a dozen or so rooming houses that look like typical suburban ranches but for the smell of crack drifting from the windows. The area is better than it once was, but at night, especially when it’s warm, people still swarm the streets, hanging out, buying and selling drugs. “The first time I went out there, I thought I stepped into the movie Night of the Living Dead,” says a local law-enforcement officer. “I almost went for my weapon. People were coming out of the bushes with their arms extended, trying to make a drug deal.”
One thing the neighborhood did have was a landlady who would rent to almost anyone. Mary Dodson had moved to the area in the fifties, and over the years had accumulated so many houses—close to 35—in Coram and neighboring Gordon Heights that the area became known as Dodsonville. In a county with a shortage of low-income housing, her properties became magnets for welfare recipients, homeless people, anyone who needed a cheap place to stay. With these new residents, all sorts of social ills arrived, too—violence, mental illness, open-air drug dealing. Depending on whom you asked, Dodson was a good-hearted Christian taking in people who had nowhere else to go—or a slumlord who had run the neighborhood into the ground for her own financial gain.