Two of Minnesota’s highest-risk sex offenders live in a house on 26th Avenue N. that is fronted by a yard sign warning “We watch, we call” and owned by a pastor who prays with his tenants.

Five other sex offenders live nearby on Knox Avenue, a few houses away from a single mother of four who keeps her children from playing in the yard.

Three more rent apartments a mile away in a drab brick building on Golden Valley Road, down the street from a playground and school bus stop.

After getting out of prison for their sex crimes, they have something new in common: They all moved to north Minneapolis.

Nearly 300 of Minnesota’s most dangerous sex offenders now live outside confinement, and more than half of them are residing in only a few neighborhoods in Minneapolis and St. Paul, a Star Tribune analysis of state records shows.

That saturation is occurring despite a state law that requires authorities who supervise newly released sex offenders to avoid concentrating them in any community. Sidestepping the law, however, brings no penalties.

In both Minneapolis and St. Paul, frustrated leaders are calling for tougher laws that would result in wider dispersal of the riskiest sex offenders.

“What you’re talking about is the equal distribution of the undesirables,” said Minneapolis City Council Member Don Samuels, who is running for mayor.

But those demands have come as public alarm over the resettlement of “Level Three” sex offenders — those considered most prone to committing more crimes —is rising around the state. Eight cities in Minnesota have essentially banned offenders from living within their borders, thwarting the state’s aim to guide the offenders into a stable lifestyle after prison.

The issue has gained urgency because more sex offenders in the state are completing their prison terms and transitioning to supervised release in communities — from 123 in 2008 to 289 as of last week. If that rate continues, the number of Level Three sex offenders living in Minnesota could double in the next six years.

As debate intensifies, corrections officials say offenders with permanent housing are more able to find jobs and less likely to get in trouble again.

“Would you like them in a place that accounts for their whereabouts, or would you like them to be released in the community without that support?” said Richard Gardell, the CEO of 180 Degrees, a Minneapolis halfway house that transitions high-risk offenders to the community.

Some local leaders say that’s not their problem. Restrictions imposed in Wyoming, about 30 miles north of the Twin Cities, mean an offender can only live in a few square blocks of the city.

If you’re a high-risk sex offender, said Wyoming City Administrator Craig Mattson, “you can’t get to live here, and that’s the end of it.”

‘It creates ghettos’

The blocks around Golden Valley Road and Thomas Avenue in north Minneapolis look like a typical middle-class neighborhood. Most of the modest single-family homes along the tree-lined street are well kept. In the mornings and afternoons, the street comes alive with children getting on and off school buses and running down the sidewalks.

But these blocks are home to 14 high-risk sex offenders — four more than live in all of Rochester.

No city bears the burden of housing Level Three sex offenders like Minneapolis. It has 44 percent — 126 as of last week — of Minnesota’s highest-risk offenders, despite accounting for just 7 percent of the state’s population. Most are concentrated on the North Side, where rents are low and corrections officials have found cooperative landlords. Some neighborhoods there have become so resigned to living with the offenders that public notification meetings are no longer held.

About half of the offenders living in north Minneapolis have assaulted a victim they didn’t know, and half have assaulted a child or teen, a Star Tribune analysis found.

Fearful residents have found ways to cope with so many sex offenders as neighbors.

One father won’t let his four children go anywhere near the offenders’ homes.

One young woman down the street checks an app on her phone that shows where sex offenders live.

One high school girl stays on alert when she passes a duplex housing offenders on her way to the bus stop.

“The North Side just happens to be where they sweep everything under the rug in Minneapolis,” said Will Lumpkins, who lives with his girlfriend on Golden Valley Road.

While not every sex offender is a danger, he said, putting so many of them here “is taking advantage of poverty in the neighborhood.”

Longtime residents like Dennis Wagner say they know their neighborhood has other problems. But he said the high number of sex offenders scares away families with children.

“Would I want to buy a house here? Would I want to send my kids to school here? I don’t think so,” Wagner said. “It creates ghettos.”

Similar frustration is rising in St. Paul. Three of the city’s 32 offenders live in a duplex on Reaney Avenue on the east side of town, including one who has a history of sexually assaulting girls as young as 11.

“They’re always out there trying to pick up girls,” said the owner of the building, James Gee.

Gee said he’s worked with probation officers to rent his units to the offenders for a few years. But because of the trouble the offenders have caused, he said he is putting the building up for sale.

“A lot of the neighbors don’t like it,” he said. “In a couple months, they’ll be out of here.”

Some offenders say they have nowhere else to go. “Where do you want me to live, under a bridge?” asked one Level Three sex offender who lives on Golden Valley Road.

Despite the law, concentrating sex offenders actually has advantages, some corrections officials say.

One Hennepin County official pointed to a 2004 Colorado study showing that high-risk offenders are less likely to commit more crimes if they live in the same dwelling. A 2008 analysis by the Minnesota Department of Corrections found that only a 5 percent reoffend rate for Level Threes, lower than other sex offenders.

“They hold each other accountable,” said Hana O’Neil, sex-offender supervisor for Hennepin County Community Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Putting sex offenders in the same house, or the same neighborhood, can also make it easier to track them.

Most of them are under intense supervision and get daily to weekly check-ins by police and probation agents. Any slip-up, from drinking to having the wrong store catalog to losing their job so they can’t afford rent, can result in being sent back to prison.

It’s why Cheryl McCluskey, the landlord of the Golden Valley Road and Thomas Avenue apartment buildings, calls sex offenders “my better residents” in the past four years she’s rented to them.

Two offenders interviewed at one of her buildings said they felt more comfortable living in the relative anonymity of the North Side, rather than face the public shaming that other sex offenders did when they tried to move to wealthier neighborhoods.

Then there is this stark reality, said John Menke, the assistant director for the Ramsey County Community Corrections Department: Finding any home for sex offenders, even if that means putting them in just a few neighborhoods, is safer than having them homeless. As of last week, 33 Level Three offenders had no place to live, could go anywhere they wanted in the state, and were unmonitored, save for a weekly check-in with law enforcement.

“The worst thing in the world is to not know where they are,” Menke said.

Backlash outside the cities

The Department of Corrections (DOC) has all but stopped trying to find homes for Level Three sex offenders in the Minnesota cities that have imposed far-reaching restrictions on where they can live. Most of those cities adopted similarly written ordinances that ban these people from living within 1,000 to 2,000 feet of schools, parks, bus stops or “places children are known to congregate.”

After a homeless offender camped near Moose Lake in 2010, city leaders there passed an ordinance banning camping on city property.

Duluth is the only city that enacted restrictions but still has Level Three sex offenders living there. The result has been a cluster of 10 offenders mostly living in two neighborhoods, said Duluth police investigator Tait Erickson.

The Department of Corrections, citing a study it conducted in 2007, says laws like those in Wyoming do nothing to prevent offenders from reoffending and may be making the problem worse by lulling residents into a false sense of security.

And if more cities pass those laws, “it’s just pushing these offenders to other towns nearby,” said Bill Donnay, the DOC’s risk assessment director.

Some communities that don’t have those restrictions still manage to prevent offenders from moving in.

Last year, Mankato area landlord Gene Lewis received a call from the DOC asking whether he would rent to Level Three offender Gregory Eugene Ward, who has a history of exposing himself and fondling children and adults, and a 1995 conviction for attacking a female stranger and attempting to rape her.

Lewis said he had an apartment in the country near St. Peter, about a quarter-mile from any other home. He knew of no children nearby. But when the community learned about Ward in September, Lewis said he received more than 100 e-mails and phone calls, some asking why he hated children, others saying he’d be responsible if anything happened to someone in the community, some threatening to kill him and his wife.

More than 300 people attended the community notification meeting, where some people wept. Others shouted at Lewis and the corrections staff.

“I felt fortunate that I weighed 350 pounds, because if I was little I would have been scared,” Lewis said.

Lewis changed his mind after he learned that there were children living about a quarter-mile away. The state paid to put Ward in the Scott County jail until the DOC helped him find an apartment in Savage in a mostly commercial area.

That ended what Ward described to the Star Tribune as a yearlong struggle trying to find a place to live. He was supposed to be released in February 2012, but the other times when DOC or friends and family found him a place to live, the landlords backed out. Now to stay out of jail he needs to find work to pay for the apartment, which is being funded by the DOC for 60 days. That won’t be easy, he said, considering he doesn’t have a car, wears an ankle bracelet, and carries the “stigma” of a Level Three offender.

That “is the worst thing you can be labeled,” he said. “Period.”