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Suffolk panel rejects bill to close Commack homeless shelter

Students work together in a makeshift classroom at

Students work together in a makeshift classroom at a homeless shelter in Commack on Feb. 12, 2014. Credit: Daniel Brennan

A Suffolk legislative committee Tuesday rejected a measure to shut down a Commack shelter for homeless families that has generated protests about its impact on the local school district.

Legis. John M. Kennedy (R-Nesconset) had introduced legislation to terminate the contract of the nonprofit operator of the 90-family shelter, located in a former hotel.

Kennedy was responding to mounting complaints from residents of the Hauppauge school district that the shelter has placed a burden on the district of 4,000 students. About 16 students from the shelter attend district schools.

"I'm disappointed that my colleagues chose to go along with something that's being portrayed as cost-efficient . . . when it's really an inhumane way of treating our homeless residents," Kennedy said after the vote.

County Social Services Commissioner John O'Neill said the facility allowed the county to provide "better services at a lower cost to taxpayers." He said the 3-2 party-line vote was "in the best interest of homeless children and families."

Kennedy and Legis. Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) voted for the measure. Human services chairwoman Monica Martinez (D-Brentwood), Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Shirley) and Legis. Lou D'Amaro (D-North Babylon) voted no.

At the nearly three-hour meeting, O'Neill defended the department's use of the Commack shelter and another large family shelter in Brentwood that opened last year. The county opened the shelters in an effort to deal with a growing number of homeless families. There are 529 homeless families in the county shelter system, up from 431 in 2011, O'Neill said.

O'Neill said the larger shelters allow the county to provide services including adult education, child care and medical care that aren't offered in Suffolk's network of about 30 small shelters that house up to 12 families each. Families also are placed in motels as a last resort. Both options cost Suffolk $80 to $85 per night per family, compared with $55 at the larger shelters.

"Before it became a shelter, it was a huge den for drug activity," O'Neill said of the Commack site. "The police were there fairly frequently. Local EMS were called there for domestic violence issues; the drain on services was greater. There's actually security on site now."

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