Two controversial trailers used to house homeless sex offenders in Riverside and Westhampton are still fully occupied -- but elected officials said plans are moving forward to shutter the trailers permanently.
The Suffolk County Legislature voted unanimously in February to approve Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone's new plan regarding sex offenders.
The plan, which was unveiled by law enforcement and Parents for Megan’s Law at a Suffolk County Legislature public safety committee meeting in Hauppauge, calls for abolishing the current clustering of homeless sex offenders in one community.
Instead, Bellone said the trailers would close and homeless sex offenders would be relocated to other county shelters -- with only one registered sex offender per facility.
This week, Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman said that despite concerns raised by some about whether enough homeless facilities exist in Suffolk County to house the homeless sex offenders under the new plan, a number of options are available.
"The law we passed has wiggle room," Schneiderman said.
One possibility would be to overturn local residency restriction laws, he said. Should those residency restrictions be eased, Schneiderman said sex offenders could move closer to their former homes and residences.
"If that law is overturned, the population of those trailers will be cut in half pretty much instantly," Schneiderman said.
While Schneiderman said it is true that the county does not have enough single male shelter capacity to handle the number of homeless sex offenders currently living in the trailers, he said there are many options.
For example, a new, 100-unit family housing shelter could soon be opening in western Suffolk County; should that happen, some of the current, smaller family shelters could be opened up to accommodate single, male homeless sex offenders.
"That will help solve some of that problem," Schneiderman said.
He added that the county would be working with law enforcement and the Department of Social Services to empty the trailers and the "language" of the law allows for an array of solutions.
One solution, he said, could involve placement outside of county shelters for the homeless sex offenders. "We have flexibility in the law, as long as the placement is done in conjunction with Social Services and law enforcement," Schneiderman said. "The have some room to move beyond the idea of just the single male shelters."
Of Bellone's plan, Schneiderman said, "I think it's too early to say that the new plan isn't going to work," he said. "It's been just a short amount of time." A contract hasn't even been signed yet with Parents for Megan's Law, he said; the group would work hand-in-hand with law enforcement under the new plan.
"I am still confident that within a short period of time the trailers will be emptied out," he said. And, he added, "While not a single homeless sex offender has been moved out yet -- we expect that to change. I'm going to continue to trust Steve Bellone to move quickly on this."
Despite a Jan. 1 deadline initially promised by Bellone to empty the trailers, Schneiderman said he remained optimistic.
"I'm expecting him to empty the trailers," Schneiderman said. "I always knew it would be a matter of months. He never misled me to say it would happen overnight."
Schneiderman said while he hoped a Memorial Day deadline would be possible, he's unsure whether the trailers could be shut down by then.
Vanessa Baird-Streeter, spokesperson for Bellone, said Friday that the DSS is working with the Suffolk County police department to implement the Community Protection Act, though it will take time to reach full implementation.
"While many suburban counties simply give vouchers to homeless sex offenders, this policy means that Suffolk County now has the toughest sex offender monitoring, verification and enforcement law in the nation," she said.
Over the last two years DSS has developed plans to shift families from smaller shelters to larger Tier 2 shelters in an effort to enhance services to families in the most cost efficient manner, Baird-Streeter said.
"As a result of the implementation of this policy the county shelter system is undergoing a transition that will over time allow for full implementation of the homeless provisions of the Community Protection Act, including placement at fixed shelter locations and motels."
In addition, she added, "We also expect to see a significant decrease in the number of homeless sex offenders if, as expected, residency restriction laws are struck down in New York. Several courts have already ruled that residency restriction laws are preempted by New York State including a District Court decision in Suffolk County."
The trailers have sparked a public outcry for years, with elected officials and residents railing against the inequity of siting both trailers -- and all of Suffolk County's homeless sex offenders -- on the East End.
A public meeting was organized in January after Bellone missed a Jan. 1 deadline to close the trailers in Riverside and Westhampton.
Bellone, in the meantime, pitched his initial plan that he said will close the facilities permanently.
Bellone spoke with Schneiderman and explained the focus of the plan would be to ensure that sex offenders would not be clustered in any one neighborhood; instead, they would be spread across Suffolk County.
A mini-shelter program which had previously been passed by the legislature is not one Bellone feels is the best approach, Schneiderman said, since the shelters would still be placed in communities, with a clustering of six sex offenders in each facility.
Schneiderman said the Parents for Megan's Law would act as a contract agency to ensure that all 1000 sex offenders in Suffolk County were living where they should be and community safeguards were in place.
Not everyone, however, is pleased with Bellone's new plan. Shana Rowan, executive director of USA FAIR, Inc., a national advocacy organization formed by the family members of people required to register with the sex offender registry, has urged Senator Charles Schumer and Congressman Tim Bishop to assist in its efforts to get Parents for Megan’s Law Executive Director Laura Ahearn to "take down misleading statistics from their website that reinforces the myth of high sex offender recidivism."
USA FAIR, Rowan said, "has made fighting the myth of high sex offender recidivism its number one priority for 2013 because so many of the laws impacting law abiding former sex offenders are based on the falsehood that former offenders are likely to commit a new sex crime. According to the U.S. Justice Department and numerous other agencies and institutions that have researched recidivism, sexual offenders have one of the lowest recidivism rates in the criminal justice system."