Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy Tuesday reversed course on the contentious issue of housing for homeless sex offenders, closing two East End trailer sites and scrapping a plan to put them in a converted industrial warehouse.
In the next two months, Suffolk will begin a program similar to Nassau's: Homeless sex offenders will be given a $90 voucher to find their own emergency housing, most likely in a motel, said officials. The number of homeless sex offenders in the county is expected to rise to 40 to 45 this year, said Gregory Blass, Suffolk's social services commissioner.
The moves came just hours before a huge crowd turned out at a PTA meeting in Farmingdale to oppose the warehouse shelter. They capped a day of fast-moving developments.
Situation changes fast
Tuesday morning, Suffolk officials said they were still looking to buy an industrial site in East Farmingdale and West Babylon to house sex offenders for whom there was no room at the trailers in Riverhead and Westhampton.
By late afternoon, Levy aides had discovered the favored site, 79 Gazza Blvd. in East Farmingdale, was around the corner from a roller hockey facility, Blass said.
The proximity of the sports facility was "the last straw," Levy said in a statement. "There's simply no place to legally house these people."
The warehouse may have technically complied with Suffolk's laws barring sex offenders from living within a quarter-mile of schools and playgrounds, and from loitering within 100 feet of playgrounds, pools, arcades, youth centers and day care facilities. A consultant hired by the county had not flagged the roller hockey facility.
But the Suffolk Legislature would have had to approve the purchase, and its location "presented enough of an issue that we did not know if we could have the votes" from county lawmakers, Blass said.
Opponents of the proposed homeless shelter rejoiced. Lawmakers, parents and civic leaders had said the warehouse would be too close to schools, a movie theater and other places where children congregate.
"The issue tore through the community and spread like wildfire. No one wants to see something like this congregate in one community," said Jim Needham, president of the Saltzman East Memorial School parent teachers association.
"I'm thankful that [Levy] listened to the voice of the people," said Legis. DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville).
The public scuffle over Suffolk's shelter highlighted the difficulties of housing sex offenders as local laws are passed limiting where they can live, experts said.
"This is a good example of how the situation really across the country is really becoming untenable," said Jill Levenson, a psychology professor at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., who studies sex offender housing issues.
In New York City, which has no local residency restrictions, shelters are open to sex offenders, a city official said.
Nassau went same route
Nassau tried to open a homeless shelter for sex offenders in 2007 after a county law was passed banning them from living within 1,000 feet of schools and 500 feet of public parks, officials said. But no private social services agency stepped up to run it, officials said. Department of Social Services caseworkers now provide sex offenders with a $100 voucher and a list of motels where they cannot stay, a spokeswoman said.
The closing of the East End trailers comes as the homeless sex offenders population is higher than ever in Suffolk, Blass said. Between 30 and 35 now live in the trailers and motels each night.
"Everyone has turned their back on the problem, but DSS cannot," Blass said.