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Review: Suffolk lacks enough sex-offender shelters

A sex offender trailer is located on the

A sex offender trailer is located on the property of the county sheriff's impound and police academy in Westhampton. (March 11, 2013) Credit: Randee Daddona

Suffolk doesn't have enough shelters to comply with a new county law intended to relocate about 40 homeless male sex offenders who are living in trailers on the East End, according to a review of the county's shelter capacity.

An emergency law passed Feb. 5 calls for no more than one offender to be placed at each shelter for single residents.

However, the county only has four shelters for single males and six that house male and female singles, according to figures reviewed by Newsday from the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit that seeks to eliminate homelessness. The group conducts an annual census of Nassau and Suffolk's homeless population, and provides the figures to the counties and the federal government.

County officials are pinning their hopes for a permanent solution on the outcome of a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn Suffolk's law limiting where convicted sex offenders can live. They say that if a federal judge strikes down the law, the county will have more flexibility in finding homes for the offenders. But with possible appeals, a final decision could take months.

According to a little-noticed provision in the new law, the county has another option: allowing the lower-level offenders to find homes in the community under state residency rules that are looser than the county's.

State law requires only registered sex offenders on parole or probation to live at least 1,000 feet from schools and parks. The county law applies to all convicted sex-offenders, and requires offenders to live farther than 1,320 feet from a school, playground or day-care center.

Vanessa Baird-Streeter, spokeswoman for County Executive Steve Bellone, said the county has no plans to move offenders out of the trailers under the less restrictive state law. Instead, officials will await a final court decision.

"We believe the overturning of the law is imminent," said Baird-Streeter, noting that similar laws have been overturned as unconstitutional throughout the nation. "The implementation of the plan will be over time. We feel it is prudent to Suffolk County taxpayers to make a determination once there is a clearer understanding of the court's decision."

But, Legis. Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk), who has long pressed the county to shutter the Riverhead and Westhampton trailers, said he hoped movement comes more quickly: "With or without the court decision I'm expecting them to empty out the trailers," he said.

The situation represents the latest twist in a long-running debate about how to house homeless offenders.

Suffolk has considered alternatives including the construction of a series of mini shelters and providing motel vouchers, all of which were dropped following clashes between the county Legislature and former County Executive Steve Levy. Bellone, who took office last year, had promised to close the trailers by January, but later proposed the emergency law, calling it an urgent public safety matter.

Asked why the county is in court defending a law it hopes is struck down, Baird-Streeter said she wasn't familiar with the status of the legal proceedings. However, she said the county recognizes that the courts have been striking down residency restrictions.

The federal court proceeding is tied to a separate lawsuit challenging Nassau County's residency restrictions that is before the State Supreme Court Appellate Division. The appellate court has said it will rule within 60 days of a hearing it has scheduled for March 21. The federal judge has said he would rule in the Suffolk case after that.

Bellone's new law also pumps $2.7 million over three years into a monitoring program for the about 1,000 registered sex-offenders who live in Suffolk.

Suffolk Chief of Police James Burke said the relocation of the homeless offenders will be a "gradual process," and police officers will be notified of their whereabouts daily.

John Nieves, spokesman for the Suffolk County Department of Social Services, said the county also is moving forward with a plan to move homeless families from smaller shelters to larger facilities. The move could free up space for sex offenders in the 46 small family shelters that are now off-limits because they house children.

Suffolk County did not immediately provide figures about the number of shelters it operates.

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