St. Matt’s: The stated destination for 85 Florida prisoners in past 5 years

Billy Braswell

Billy Braswell

When Billy Braswell left Florida prison for the seventh time, he went somewhere he’d never been before: Collier County.

Before getting out in January, the 54-year-old former construction worker heard from a cellmate in a north Florida prison about St. Matthew’s House, an East Naples homeless shelter. With no place to live, Braswell became one of the 85 state prisoners in the past five years to tell corrections officials he was headed to the shelter.

In a jailhouse interview, Braswell said he had good intentions, that he “was hoping to gain a job, save some money and get on the right path.”

But he soon ran into trouble. After being kicked out of St. Matthew’s House for drinking alcohol, Collier sheriff’s deputies arrested Braswell in mid-May, alleging he tried to rape a woman outside the shelter. Braswell denies the charges.

Braswell’s case lies at the heart of a debate about crime and homeless shelters, one that looms despite St. Matthew’s House abandoning plans last month to build a shelter in Bonita Springs. Shelter officials are still looking at expanding into southern Lee County or northern Collier County. And wherever they go, complaints about crime and criminals will follow.

In opposing the proposed Bonita Springs shelter, neighborhood groups pointed to people like Braswell, calling him a cautionary tale that foreshadowed a crime jump.

“That’s not an isolated incident,” said Konrad Schultz, founder of the Concerned Citizens of Bonita, which formed when St. Matthew’s House started looking at the Old U.S. 41 location near Bernwood Drive.

St. Matthew's House CEO Vann Ellison on NewsMakers

St. Matthew's House CEO Vann Ellison on NewsMakers

By the shelter’s own count, 70 of the 85 released prisoners who said they were coming to St. Matthew’s House actually stayed there. The shelter’s president and CEO, Vann Ellison, said those 70 represent about 1 percent of all people who have stayed at St. Matthew’s House since mid-2007. He added that recidivism rates among those 70 are low, fears of a major crime increase are exaggerated, and opponents are ignoring the good done at the shelter.

“They’re saying ‘not in my backyard’ and not bringing forward any solutions,” Ellison said of the opposition groups. “Thirty-seven thousand people are going to be released from prison in Florida each year, and they’re offering no answers for them.”

Braswell’s story raises fundamental questions about crime and homeless shelters: Do new shelters lead to higher crime rates? Do they attract more convicts? Would law enforcement, already stretched thin, carry a heavier burden?

To answer these questions, the Daily News examined prison records, local jail records and court documents, tracking the paths of criminals linked to St. Matthew’s House. It also spoke with representatives from both sides, as well as independent observers, for context about the crime conversation.

Would a shelter attract violent criminals and released prisoners?

Opponents: Yes. The current St. Matthew’s House already is well-known to recently released state prisoners like Braswell, as well as jail inmates.

Supporters: No. Staff screen the criminal histories of potential residents, rejecting violent offenders and those convicted of sex crimes.

Analysis: It’s undeniable that the East Naples’ St. Matthew’s House is familiar to convicts and inmates — both in and out of Southwest Florida.

Upon release from prison, a convict must provide corrections officials with an address of where they’re going. Since June 2007, 85 prisoners have said they were going to 2001 Airport-Pulling Road S., the address of St. Matthew’s House.

Nearly all of their crimes fit into six categories — assault, burglary, robbery, theft, drugs or DUI.

About half were sentenced for crimes committed in Collier or Lee counties.

Collier: 35

Lee: 8

Broward: 6

Martin: 4

Palm Beach: 4

Hillsborough: 3

Miami-Dade: 3

Pinellas: 3

Other: 19

Source: Florida Department of Corrections

But unless under supervised release, the prisoner doesn’t have to go to the address provided.

The Daily News asked to review St. Matthew’s House records to verify how many of those 85 prisoners spent time at the shelter. Citing privacy reasons, shelter officials denied that request.

But when provided with the 85 names, shelter staff combed through guest logs and found 70 had stayed at St. Matthew’s House. Of those 70, Ellison said 41 listed Collier or Lee as their home county.

During that same five-year stretch, records show 239 people arrested by the Collier County Sheriff’s Office have listed 2001 Airport-Pulling Road S. as their home address.

The 309 prisoners and inmates linked to St. Matthew’s House through state prisons and the Collier jail represent about 5 percent of the population at St. Matthew’s House, which is estimated at about 1,200 per year.

But others sometimes come from state prisons outside Florida and jails outside Collier County, where records weren’t tracked by the Daily News. Ellison estimated 14 to 16 percent of St. Matthew’s House residents listed “custody” as their last location of residence.

Have convicted and accused criminals associated with St. Matthew’s House committed serious crimes after leaving prison or jail?

Opponents: There are dozens of examples of crimes — including some violent ones — in Collier County linked to St. Matthew’s House records.

Supporters: Connections between convicts and the shelter have been overblown, and recidivism rates for those who stayed at the shelter are low.

Analysis: Among those state prisoners linked to St. Matthew’s House, some have had run-ins with law enforcement in Collier County. Upon release, 26 of those 85 — or 31 percent — landed back in the Naples Jail Center within three years. That figure mirrors Florida Department of Corrections studies, which show about one-in-three state prisoners will re-offend within three years of release.

13 were originally sentenced to prison for crimes committed in Collier

13 were originally sentenced to prison for crimes committed outside Collier

6 listed St. Matthew’s House as their home address upon re-arrest, though the shelter says none were actually staying there

At least 5 gave an address within a 2 mile radius of St. Matthew’s House

Source: Florida Department of Corrections, Collier County Sheriff’s Office

Most were arrested on non-violent offenses — theft, marijuana possession, probation violation.

A few much-debated cases, however, involve violent crimes.

Braswell’s case suggests there are convicts who come to Southwest Florida for the first time because of the shelter. In an interview, Braswell said he’d previously lived in Jacksonville, St. Petersburg and Okeechobee. He chose St. Matthew’s House over shelters in Miami because drugs and crime are more prevalent there, he said.

There’s also Clyde Barden, who listed St. Matthew’s House as his address upon arrest in April. He’s accused of grabbing a convenience store clerk’s hands while he stole from an open cash register about five miles from the shelter. His case is pending.

In one case, however, the stated impact of St. Matthew’s House has been exaggerated.

Opponents tied St. Matthew’s House to Stephen Moretto, who was arrested in August 2009 and later convicted of two murder charges in Lee County. But shelter records show Moretto had lived in Naples for at least five years, and his 17-day stay ended more than a month before his arrest for the San Carlos Park slayings.

Would crime rates rise near a new homeless shelter?

Opponents: Absolutely. The homeless population tends to have higher rates of drug and alcohol dependency, which increases the likelihood of crime. The current St. Matthew’s House location in East Naples already has higher incidents of crime.

Supporters: No. The residents of St. Matthew’s House are largely dedicated to recovery, undergo daily alcohol tests and are subject to random drug screenings.

Analysis: It’s not a guarantee that crime automatically rises in neighborhoods around homeless shelters. In some cases, researchers found crime rates actually fell when a new homeless shelter is erected.

John Gilderbloom, a University of Louisville professor who was written extensively on homelessness issues, said oversight and strong leaders among shelter management play a key role.

“If they’re unregulated, unlicensed and they sort of say for the government to stay out, that’s always a sign of trouble,” Gilderbloom said.

Using CrimeCast, a forecasting tool, Gaut says the Airport-Pulling Road address for St. Matthew’s House is 2.3 times more likely to have violent and property offenses than other parts of the county.

Homicide: 1.95x

Rape: 3.21x

Robbery: 2.42x

Aggravated assault: 1.71x

Burglary: 2.19x

Larceny: 1.76x

Motor vehicle theft: 2.13x

Crimes against property: 1.77x

From a Sheriff’s Office perspective, it’s difficult to say whether St. Matthew’s House causes higher crime, particularly because of the nearby jail, bail bondsmen offices and other civil service facilities, Collier County sheriff’s Capt. Tim Guerrette said.

“Those places all are factors too,” Guerrette said. “Any time we have a dense population of people, you’re going to get some added calls for service.”

But to William Gaut, a retired police captain who authored a free crime analysis report for the Concerned Citizens of Bonita, the evidence is undeniable — crime would rise.

Historical data also suggest that the area would become home to more sex offenders, Gaut said.

“The indicators are that crime would probably rise significantly,” he said.

Would a homeless shelter mean more work for local law enforcement?

Opponents: Yes. The Collier County Sheriff’s Office already responds to a significant numbers of calls for service at the East Naples location, and more patrols are needed around the current shelter.

Supporters: Perhaps, but the current St. Matthew’s House staff also has a strong relationship with local police. The Collier County Sheriff’s Office, for example, can check the shelter’s roster for active warrants.

Analysis: Local sheriff’s deputies are no stranger to St. Matthew’s House in East Naples. In the past five years, deputies have responded to an average of 4.5 calls for service per week at that location — a high amount for the Sheriff’s Office.

Still, the call data shows that in many cases, deputies are responding to routine issues. About half of all calls for service were not crime-related.

Medical, 247 -- 22 percent

Other non-crime, 205 -- 18 percent

Investigations, 150 -- 13 percent

Disturbances, 136 -- 12 percent

Warrants/civil service, 106 -- 9 percent

Suspicious person/incident, 106 -- 9 percent

Other crime-related, 102 -- 9 percent

Welfare/mental check, 93 -- 8 percent

Source: Collier County Sheriff’s Office

There’s also no guarantee that more police help would be needed at a new shelter.

Two homeless shelters in Fort Myers have had significantly fewer calls for service than St. Matthew’s House during the same five-year time period. The Salvation Army Social Services Center, a 215-bed shelter, averaged 2.7 calls for service per week, while the Fort Myers Rescue Mission, which houses 65 men, averaged 0.7 calls per week.

The Rev. David Light, director of the Fort Myers Rescue Mission, said a friendly bond with police helps keep calls for service down. A ban on alcohol and drugs helps deter potential criminals from populating his shelter, he said.

“That’s the two areas where you get a lot of crime,” Light said. “Because we test, they’re going to either avoid us or they’re going to avoid alcohol and drugs if they’re coming here.”

Would more homeless people and potential criminals roam the streets near a proposed shelter?

Opponents: Yes. The East Naples location is always at capacity, causing shelter staff to turn away potential residents who then loiter in the area while waiting for an open bed. The surrounding region would also become home to those who leave or are kicked out of the shelter, such as Braswell.

Supporters: It’s unlikely. A new shelter could take some homeless people off the street, providing them with beds. The originally proposed site also would have served women and children, who are more likely to abide by laws.

Analysis: Since 2005, the East Naples location has been over capacity, which causes staff to deny access to some homeless. Some of those turned away find other places to stay. Some live in homeless camps and nearby woods. Some come back each day, asking about vacancies.

Guerrette, the Collier sheriff’s captain, said deputies get more calls about roaming homeless during the night.

“One thing we do get is complaints about sleeping behind businesses. We’ll get them up Radio Road and down the Trail,” he said. “For the most part, during the day, we’re not seeing a lot of activity going on.”

Guerrette added that homeless camps aren’t unique to the St. Matthew’s House area.

Supporters have said a new shelter would support the homeless population that’s not currently serviced, but there aren’t precise figures about how many homeless populate south Lee County and north Collier County. Using a strict federal definition, there are an estimated 2,800 homeless people in Lee County, said Janet Bartos, executive director of the Lee County Homeless Coalition.

“Clearly there’s a homeless population in the Bonita area,” Bartos said. “We know what, but figuring out how many, it’s tough.”

One argument that Gilderbloom, the Louisville professor, rejects: that shelters for women and children mean less crime.

“The problem is the boyfriends show up and you get domestic violence issues, which can get pretty bad,” Gilderbloom said.

A shelter doesn’t have to mean more homeless and more crime in neighborhoods, Gilderbloom said. The keys to avoiding those issues — good management serving a small population.

“Size matters, and the bigger it is, the more problems you’re going to have in terms of the neighborhood impact,” Gilderbloom said. “My line on it is, ‘Yes, we do need housing shelters, but it should be organized.’”

© 2012 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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