NEW PORT RICHEY, Fla. -- What if Hurricane Irma forced you to evacuate, only to find out the shelter near you was also housing registered sex offenders?
Would you still bring your family there?
In Pasco County it’s a real question, as they try to balance that concern with compassion.
“Sexual predators and offenders are part of our population as well,” said Pasco Assistant Administrator Kevin Guthrie.
With Hurricane Irma approaching, Pasco County is opening space at one of its storm shelters to registered sex offenders and predators. A plan, Guthrie says, was put in place about six months ago.
“There are agencies in our general area that will take sexual predators and offenders and put them in jail during a storm. That's not the best practice,” said Guthrie.
So what is?
Pasco says sex offenders seeking shelter at Wiregrass Ranch High School will be kept in a separate building - far apart from everyone else, including children.
“Separated by armed law enforcement officers,” said Guthrie.
But even with those assurances, some people weren't happy about it.
“No. I would probably go to a family member or another shelter,” said Brittany Sparks, a mother of two.
Ashley Lair, also a mother, said she understands what the county is trying to do and can sympathize. But she still would avoid the shelter.
“I wouldn't want to. I'm already worried enough. I don't want to worry more about my children,” said Lair.
The decision comes just days after Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said sex offenders or predators would not be allowed at storm shelters in Polk County, even threatening them with arrest.
“It's cruel,” said Mike Jalazo, who runs the Pinellas Ex-Offender Re-entry Program.
Jalazo says Pasco's solution just makes more sense. Lots of sex offenders have moved on with their lives.
“They have families, and we're going to tell them that you need to stay under a bridge? Versus being with your family during a category five hurricane? That doesn't make sense,” said Jalazo.
The sheriff's office has reached out to the county’s registered sex offenders letting them know that the option is available to them to shelter at Wiregrass Ranch if necessary. But, because that option is available, they also told them that any registered sex offender found a different shelter, if children are present, could be subject to arrest.
The decision whether to allow sex offenders into storm shelters is made on a county-by-county basis.
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