October 18-25, 2006

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Happy Valley Villa

Photograph by Laura Mattingly
Exit strategy: The entrance to Happy Valley Villa, whose 27 residents were evicted after neighborhood controversy over the housing of 17 sex offenders.

Closing Time at Happy Valley Villa

The night before their deadline to move out, paroled sex offenders wonder where they'll move next

By Laura Mattingly

On Sunday evening, the day before Happy Valley Villa residents were supposed to have cleared out, the long white halls were empty, and only a few people were in their rooms, eating dinner, or watching television. Some of those remaining, despite diligent searching, had yet to find new housing accommodations because of their parole status as sex offenders.

Earlier this month, after discovering that 4573 Branciforte Drive was the home of 17 sex offenders, several neighbors who feared for the safety of their families began calling public and media attention to the quiet 1930s mansion tucked away in the hills. Within two weeks, all residents had been asked to leave, due to reported code violations and water quality problems.

None of the five residents interviewed for this story had difficulties with the water.

Because no parole violation or other illegal act was the impetus for the disbursement of the house, some residents liken their neighbors' reaction to a witch hunt.

"People just don't understand," says Jesse Flores, Happy Valley Villa resident, and sex offender on parole. "For a lot of us here this place is safer than any other place, because we take care of each other."

Because of social stigmas surrounding sex offenders, some of the Happy Valley Villa residents have had difficulty finding jobs and are now having even more trouble finding housing due to the new Jessica's Law, which restricts sex offenders from living within a quarter-mile of schools and day-care facilities.

"It makes it even harder for us to get jobs, to pay our bills, to pay our rent," says Flores, the only parolee interviewed for this story who would give his real name. "What does a felon do when he comes out of prison, and he's only got $200 to get on his feet and he's not accepted? And if he's a sex felon, and he can't get around, what happens? He might start dealing drugs, he might fall back in the same pit again. Because that's the only thing that probably would keep him alive and feed his needs and pay his bills, and that's what happens. We get pushed and we get forced to do things we don't want to do. And go back to our own vomit again. And we don't want to do that. I want to be a citizen. I want my life back. My life was taken from me since 1992."

Another resident and sex offender, Dave Hawkins, was released in August after three years in prison, and is now working for a courier company. Approaching his housing search in accordance with Jessica's Law, he has marked out the areas on a map of all the places in the county he won't be able to live. According to Hawkins, his housing options are severely restricted.

Residents voiced concerns and frustrations about their neighbors' unwillingness to understand their predicament.

"All they know is, Hey, you're a sex offender, we don't want you near our house, it's just a matter of time until these guys are going to screw up, and they're gonna do something wrong. But it's just not like that," says Flores. "Right now if I ever do something again, I'm gone for life."

Flores feels that much of the fear surrounding the Happy Valley Villa could be overcome if neighbors were to meet and talk with those on parole.

"I sometimes get angry," says Flores, concerning the negative reactions of his neighbors. "But I don't blame them, because they don't know. And the only way for them to know is to get to know some of us at least. We're people, we're human beings too. Me, I got a wife and a family, and I can't move [back] with my wife and family until I'm off parole," says Flores. "This case didn't concern them--it my family, it was before I met my wife this happened. But she accepted me, she trusted me, I raised my kids, I loved them, I taught them how to read and write. But I lost seven years of my life trying to get back to my family. I was in prison three years--then they gave me four years on parole, so that's seven years. And now I'm going home pretty soon. And my P.O., they all know me, they say, 'Go on home, leave California, go back to Texas and go home to your family, they're waiting for you.'"

Flores' family lives in Texas, and he points to a collection of photos tacked to his wall that his children sent to him.

"I missed my daughter's prom, and my little boys are growing up. ... I'm tired of hiding. Some of us deserve to get our lives back together."

Flores has four more months on parole before he can reunite with his family.

The residents I spoke to expressed tremendous gratitude toward the building owner, Arlen Hafner, for allowing them to stay and for treating them with respect.

"This man, Arlen, I could say he's my hero," says Flores. "This man deserves a lot of credit. He actually tried to give us a start. And we took care of him. I feel bad that we're leaving and he feels bad that we're leaving. This is a beautiful place up here, it's nice and quiet, and it gives me time to really concentrate, and this is really unjust."

Another resident and sex offender on parole, Vince Herald, feels frustrated and betrayed by some of the media coverage of their eviction.

"This lady's out there writing," he says, "and what really pissed me off about the whole thing is that when I read the article, [there was] not one word that I had said about how we are trying to get our lives together and let us be."

Herald feels the real concern should be directed toward repeat offenders. He emphasizes that the residents of their house have not created any problems in the community since they moved in.

"A real pedophile, if he is really hard-core, the first day that he's out, he'll be back in prison a month later with another charge. Those are the people you've got to worry about. Why are you picking on these poor people who haven't done anything [since serving their time]? We're trying to get our lives together, we're trying to do something for ourselves. But the public won't let us do it."

Herald says that the social stigma follows him everywhere, as though his sentence has been inescapably branded on his body.

"That word, 'sex offender.' It's like having writing on your back or on your forehead. And people look at that. They don't even know who you are."

Hawkins says the recent public hype over the sex offenders' presence in Happy Valley, and the political attention given to Jessica's Law, redirects attention to more superficial aspects of a larger social problem.

"There's no rehabilitation in prison systems, there's not even any jobs in there. They don't set people up for a proper release. Things like this [the close of Happy Valley Villa] don't even scratch the surface. The real issue is what's being done with your money to actually help these people or to re-enter them into society," says Hawkins. "I mean technically, once we're done with our parole we're regular citizens again. Whether we have to register for life or not, that's a technicality. The bottom line is parole is supposed to be a program to get you readapted to society."

All residents were ordered to evacuate by last Monday, but as of Sunday night, the three parolees I spoke with had no idea where else to go or what the next day would bring.

"We'll find out tomorrow. We're pretty much on a day-to-day basis," says Flores.

But despite troubles, being ostracized by their neighborhood and facing the threat of homelessness, residents Flores, Hawkins and Herald, have remained relatively optimistic and determined.

"One thing I know, I still, I am a human," says Flores. "I still can feel, I still can love, and I'm OK, I'm fine."

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