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Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2006 09:41 pm

Salt and vinegar

Concerns over sex offenders living in a west side neighborhood stirs debate, prompts new ordinance

Sometimes Larry Beckom gets excited — most noticeably when he’s talking about what Beckom says is a mandate from God. Beckom, a self-described miracle, says he didn’t used to be a very nice guy.

Now he’s giving back, although some residents of the Vinegar Hill neighborhood, on Springfield’s west side, say Beckom can keep his charity until he learns to communicate better with folks in the community.

“I’d make a lousy politician,” Beckom told members of the Vinegar Hill Neighborhood Association at the group’s meeting Monday, referring to his tell-it-like-it-is style.

Pasfield House owner Tony Leone, who was attending the meeting fired back: “You certainly make a lousy spokesman for your cause.”

Beckom’s organization, Nu-Focus Foundation Inc., which Beckom runs with his wife, Kathy, helps men, including former prison inmates, get back on their feet. Nu-Focus provides housing for the men for as long as 90 days at two locations, 618 and 620 W. Lawrence Ave., owned by the Beckoms.

Nu-Focus was incorporated as a nonprofit agency in 2002, according to the secretary of state’s records. According to the Beckoms, the men must get jobs and are encouraged to attend church services. Swearing, smoking inside the house, and hanging around outside the property are prohibited. Parolees must also adhere to their parole guidelines and are subject to surprise inspections from corrections officers, who have keys to both houses.

Most neighborhood residents say Beckom’s efforts are commendable, but they’d like to know more about who’s living there and how the program works.

Six men — four on parole, among them two registered sex offenders — currently live at the two addresses, but, because of privacy issues, Illinois Department of Corrections spokesman Derek Schnapp says he cannot confirm or deny the identities of parolees living in the homes.

However, a search of the IDOC online sex-offender registry shows that one resident is a 23-year-old man convicted on narcotics charges in 2004 and required to register as a sex offender. A 42-year-old man convicted of aggravated criminal sexual abuse of a victim under the age of 13 lives at the second address, IDOC records show.

Another man, convicted of both criminal sexual abuse of a victim under the age of 13 and predatory criminal assault, who was living in the Nu-Focus residences, Schnapp says, has since been moved to another facility.

“This is making me sick,” Carla Covington, who lives nearby, tells Illinois Times.

Covington says she’s surprised that the Beckoms, who opened their facility one year ago, didn’t have to hold a public meeting or get special permission from the city to house felons in a residential neighborhood, five blocks from an elementary school.

“At 3 p.m. every afternoon, children walk by that house. I don’t begrudge people getting help, but that is a concern of mine,” says Covington who has a teenage son.

However, IDOC’s Schnapp confirms that Nu-Focus is an approved site for parolees and that the program has complied with all state and city of Springfield requirements.

Under these rules, each of the residences may house one sex offender without around-the-clock surveillance (the Beckoms maintain that a case manager lives on site). They are also required to enforce each former inmate’s parole guidelines, which Schnapp also says cannot be disclosed, as well as provide the men with transportation to counseling sessions.

Other than that, IDOC requires no special licensing or additional security restriction, Schnapp says, and for the time being the city of Springfield doesn’t stipulate that any zoning variances be granted for facilities like the one being operated by the Beckoms.

Beckom does remove problem residents when she and others complain, Covington says: “Anyone we question, they’re gone — but then who does he move in?”

Ward 6 Ald. Mark Mahoney introduced an amendment to the Springfield zoning ordinance to change that. Under Mahoney’s proposal, “no sexual predator shall reside within 1,000 feet of the registered address of another sexual predator unless a conditional permitted use is obtained.”

The public-affairs committee will discuss Mahoney’s proposal on Monday, Sept. 18, and Mahoney expects it to come before the full council in a couple of months.

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