LOS ANGELES Parents who pick up their children at the bus stop in the Harbor Gateway neighborhood say they often see men wearing GPS ankle bracelets and tell their children to stay away. Just up the street, 30 paroled sex offenders, including rapists and child molesters, live in a single apartment building. More than 100 registered sex offenders live within a few miles.
So local residents and city officials developed a plan to force convicted sex offenders to leave their neighborhood: open a tiny park.
The parents, in a state where the law prohibits registered sex offenders from living within 2,000 feet of a school or a public park, are not the only ones seizing on this approach.
From the metropolis of Miami to the small town of Sapulpa, Okla., communities are building pocket parks, sometimes so small that they have barely enough room for a swing set, to drive out sex offenders. One playground installation company in Houston has even advertised its services to homeowners associations as an option for keeping sex offenders away.
Within the next several months, one of Los Angeles' smallest parks will open in Harbor Gateway, on a patch of grass less than 1,000 square feet at the corner of a busy intersection. But even if no child ever uses its jungle gym, the park will serve its intended purpose.
"Regardless of whether it's the largest park or the smallest, we're putting in a park to send a message that we don't want a high concentration of sex offenders in this community," said Joe Buscaino, a former Los Angeles police officer who represents the area on the City Council.
While the pocket parks springing up around the country offer a sense of security to residents, they will probably leave more convicted sex offenders homeless. And research shows that once sex offenders lose stable housing, they become not only harder to track but also more likely to commit another crime, according to state officials involved with managing such offenders.
"Putting in parks doesn't just break up clusters it makes it impossible for sex offenders to find housing in the whole city," said Janet Neeley, a member of the California Sex Offender Management Board. "It's counterproductive to public safety because when you have nothing to lose, you are much more likely to commit a crime than when you are rebuilding your life."
Restrictions on where sex offenders can live, which have been passed in most states, have already rendered most residential areas in many cities off-limits.
The number of homeless sex offenders in California has increased threefold since 2006, when the latest residency restrictions were passed, and a third of sex offenders on parole are homeless, according to reports from the Sex Offender Management Board.
The others cluster in the few pockets where they are still allowed, like Harbor Gateway, a working-class neighborhood that stretches south of the main part of the city along Interstate 110.
Because of continuing litigation over the residency restrictions, it is unclear exactly how many of the sex offenders living near the new Harbor Gateway park would have to leave the area, or when.
Currently, all sex offenders, even those whose crimes were not violent or against children, must register for life in California, but only those on parole are prevented from living near parks and schools.
About 3.5 percent of paroled sex offenders commit a new sex crime before the end of their three-year parole period, according to a 2008 Sex Offender Management Board report.
The pocket park policy has been an unmitigated political victory for Buscaino, who easily won re-election to the City Council on Tuesday. The park's groundbreaking last month became a neighborhood celebration, complete with a marching band and residents who loudly cheered Buscaino and other local officials.
"I think it's great," said Patti O'Connell, 58, who lives a block from the park. "I just feel sorry for wherever they're moving to. It's scary that there's sex offenders all around with all these little kids here."
And Buscaino is moving ahead with plans to squeeze even further the areas in Los Angeles where sex offenders can live. Two more pocket parks are planned for another neighborhood in Buscaino's district, in hopes of breaking up a cluster of sex offenders who live there. He also hoped to bar sex offenders in Los Angeles from living near day care centers and after-school programs, as other cities have already done.
The park in Harbor Gateway will cost only about $300,000 because the city already owns the land. But one of the other new parks, which will be 3 acres, will cost the city about $6 million, including buying the land.
Buscaino said he supported housing for sex offenders but said the pocket park would improve the quality of life in Harbor Gateway.
"Let's house them, absolutely, but not in a high-population area like this one," he said.
Many of the sex offenders who live near Harbor Gateway have been placed there with the help of parole officers, precisely so they would not end up on the street.
The landlord of some nearby apartments where dozens of sex offenders on parole live, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said that keeping paroled sex offenders together in transitional housing actually kept the community safer because it places controls on them even after they leave prison.
The doors are locked by keypads so that officers can regularly check on the parolees, he said. Residents are under strict curfews and are not allowed to drink, use drugs or view pornography while living in the apartments. If they violate those rules, parole officers can send them back into custody.
"People come out of jail, and they just become homeless," the landlord said. "They have no food, no money, no anything. What's the possibility then that they're going to reoffend? They can add all the parks they want, but they still have to go somewhere."
In some urban areas, however, there is already nowhere left for sex offenders to legally live.
In Miami, dozens of convicted sex offenders camped under a bridge, unable to find any other shelter, until the encampment was broken up several years ago. Another camp in Miami, where a dozen offenders slept on the sidewalk, was dispersed last year when Marc Sarnoff, a city commissioner, had three pocket parks built in the neighborhood.
Sarnoff said he did not know where the offenders ended up.