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Sex offender refuge draws teddy bears and a Tampa judge's scorn

TAMPA — Ruben Alvarez, an imposing presence with a shaved head and the physique of a professional wrestler, was impossible to miss in sex court.

Circuit Judge Chet A. Tharpe glared. He knew the sex offender well, had sent him to prison 10 years ago for lewd behavior with teen girls. Tharpe knew what was coming: Alvarez now runs a shelter for other sex offenders and had come to collect one.

The would-be boarder was 23. He had served time for having sex with a young girl but was back over a minor probation violation.

When the case came up, Tharpe let loose.

"I think you need to get away from Ruben Alvarez," the judge said, his voice rising. "I think that's trouble. I think you are a young man who is easily manipulated. Other people in my court have had problems primarily because of their association with Ruben Alvarez."

From the middle rows, Alvarez started to say something.

Tharpe cut him off. "Don't you say one word," the judge shouted. "If you do, I'm going to hold you in contempt."

The judge turned back to the defendant. Tharpe noted he'd acquired a pregnant girlfriend. Grow up, the judge said. Be a man. Put a roof over your family.

"You don't need the likes of Ruben Alvarez."

Tharpe was silent for almost a minute, staring down.

He then allowed the defendant to go with Alvarez.

• • •

Their housing situation has come to this:

Sex offenders are being released to other sex offenders.

In Florida, offenders whose victims are children are known as "thousand-footers," They're prohibited from living within 1,000 feet of a school, day care center, park, playground or even a school bus stop.

In 2009, the state made national headlines when it was discovered that probation officers in Miami were sending sex offenders to live under a bridge for lack of anyplace else. Ministers who feed the homeless say sex offenders are living under at least two bridges in Tampa.

One of the few alternatives is Alvarez's outreach shelter on 50th Street near Busch Boulevard. It's a clean, spare apartment building with a pantry heavily dependant on peanut butter, and with odd touches — a cage of bunnies and a roost of pigeons in the yard and teddy bears on the beds.

The center's name:

Touched by the Hand.

The 1,000-foot barrier runs right down the middle of the shelter. The thousand-footers live on one side. The rest of the homeless men live on the other.

Hillsborough judges routinely allow sex offenders to live there. Neither prosecutors nor public defenders object.

Despite his misgivings, Judge Tharpe said, he can't bar offenders from living with Alvarez. "If Ruben isn't doing anything illegal," he said, "I don't know that I can tell a young man he can't have contact."

All he can do is warn.

• • •

It has been a quiet year for Alvarez. He was on a street corner in January, directing panhandlers with a whistle, when police noticed one of his group wearing a house-arrest ankle monitor. That event, in particular, rankled Tharpe, who felt that Alvarez had manipulated the offender and got him in trouble again. Alvarez admitted he made a mistake.

But that was a mere ripple in his turbulent life.

No matter how often he has tried to reinvent himself, trouble has always stuck. His Florida rap sheet is 17 pages long and dates back to 1983 when he was first charged with aggravated assault. He blames his upbringing. Put on the street when he was 16, he said he survived drugs, rape and prostitution. He got tough. He has a street-fighter one-two — a hard straight right followed by a wall of a forearm.

Alvarez racked up arrests through the '80s and '90s until 2001, when he was charged with his first sex crime.

An arrest report said he played a pornographic video in the presence of three underage girls and fondled himself before at least one of them. He was supposed to be babysitting. Tharpe gave him 18 months in prison.

When Alvarez was released, he set out to redeem himself:

"I went to the streets."

• • •

In 2005, he began asking for food donations from churches, restaurants and grocery stores, on behalf of the homeless. At Without Walls International Church, a woman even gave him a van.

On Saturday mornings, he handed out food in downtown Tampa. Before long, Alvarez was feeding more than 300 people. He got houses to shelter them. At one point, he was housing the homeless at 14 properties.

Then he got in trouble again. He violated probation — "by five minutes," he said — and Tharpe put him on house arrest. Disgraced once more, Alvarez appeared to be out of the do-gooder business.

In 2009, it picked back up. He rented the apartment building on 50th Street and started his Touched by the Hand Outreach. He filled out a form for the state, his articles of incorporation, and described it as "a legal entity created by myself and God."

For $650 a month, he offered men room, board and "life skills training" — how to make a bed, how to dress for the day, how to look for a job. The fresh out of jail and unemployed could work around the shelter.

But trouble caught up with Alvarez again. Last year, he was accused of rape by a woman working at the shelter. The charge was dropped within a month. The woman stopped cooperating with prosecutors.

He said it was a setup.

• • •

Alvarez didn't set out to open a shelter for sex offenders, he said. He wanted to shelter homeless veterans. But what could he do? Thousand-footers get referred to him. No one else wanted them. He ended up with a half-dozen or so.

They're like the biblical lepers, he said. Would Jesus have turned the lepers away?

"I couldn't say no."

When he talks about who he is and what he's done, he falls to his knees and cries. He just wants love, he said. He will not say he's cured. "I expect something else to happen," he said vaguely, still on his knees. "I want to be perfect, but …"

Alvarez has brought in two partners to run Touched by the Hand — Dwayne Wright and Thomas Phillips. Neither has a criminal record. They say they're focused on homeless veterans and hope to acquire more apartments on 50th Street for a full-fledged rehabilitation program for substance abuse. Alvarez will provide the vision, Wright said.

• • •

Two weeks after his dressing down by Tharpe, Alvarez was back in another courtroom. He'd come for a 48-year-old onetime Peeping Tom jailed again for a probation violation.

A public defender told Circuit Judge Debra Behnke that the defendant would stay at a "ministry" called Touched by the Hand, founded by a man named Ruben Alvarez.

The judge, substituting for another on vacation, asked, "What's his last name?" It wasn't familiar to her.

"Alvarez."

Behnke approved the release.

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this story. John Barry can be reached at jbarry@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

Sex offender refuge draws teddy bears and a Tampa judge's scorn 08/05/11 [Last modified: Saturday, August 6, 2011 11:17pm]

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