Suffolk County Executive hopeful and current Babylon Supervisor Steve Bellone said he knew a little bit about how the county currently holds homeless sex offenders.
But some things he heard on Monday afternoon, on the first day of his Suffolk County "listening tour," caught him off guard.
"The conditions you describe in these facilities come as a surprise to me," said Bellone, Babylon's Democrat supervisor since 2001, to a group of local legislators and a few civic advocates. "I was not sure those were the conditions."
Bellone further elaborated after the discussion, which lasted for about 75 minutes, that such conditions - not only the lack of permanent housing, but a lack of personal space and even a shower - play a bigger role beyond the face value fact that the ex-criminals don't have several basic needs met.
"The conditions that exist in these trailers and the kind of stress that can place on people who are potentially very dangerous to kids and families," was what he said he took away most following the conversation.
Many people on the East End have become aware of the efforts by Suffolk County Legislators Ed Romaine, R-Center Moriches, and Jay Schneiderman, I-Montauk, to rid the area of housing the entire county's homeless sex offender population - now hovering between 25 and 30. Currently two trailers, located in Riverside and Westhampton, house all of them. However on March 8, the Legislature overrode an executive veto, permitting the County to use a private vendor to place the men and women at six different locations throughout the county.
At Monday's discussion, Bellone heard local representatives all say that they are willing to take "their share" of the county's homeless sex offender population.
But placing two shelters in Southampton "under the darkness of night" is not fair, said Southampton Supervisor Anna Thorne-Holst.
Present at the discussion, which took place in the basement of the Riverhead Free Library, were Romaine, Schneiderman, Holst, Riverhead Councilwoman Jodi Giglio, therapist Bill O'Leary, Jamesport reisdent Mason Haas, and Brad Bender, president of the Flanders, Riverside, and Northampton Civic Association.
O'Leary, who has been counseling sex offenders and sex crime victims for over 10 years, explained to Bellone that the current system creates a cycle in which the county is on the defensive, rather than proactively helping the homeless sex offenders get off the street and become productive members of society.
"My more immediate concern is the desperation this creates," he said. O'Leary said that the percentage of sex offenders who are convicted of sex crimes again is "a lot less than people think," at 3.6 percent in New York State (5.3 percent nationally). However, he said, just because they are not convicted again does not mean they are still not a drain on the system - or that the system has helped them.
"Just because they're not reoffending doesn't mean they are not affecting the community in other ways," O'Leary said. "We have a lot more guys violate their curfew or driver permissions, drinking and drugs is a problem ... They don't care if they go back to jail. Then they (get more criminal charges) without getting the transition, supervision, and treatment they need."
Bellone said toward the end of the conversation that he believes "notification and verification," is the best approach moving forward in finding homes for the homeless sex offenders. "Notifying" neighborhoods properly and thoroughly when sex offenders move in, and "verifying" addresses frequently to make sure the sex offenders are at their listed addresses.
Tying the issue back to the reason for his trip - his likely run for county executive - Bellone said he believes it's up to the county executive to communicate effectively and provide one more aspect in improving the current situation.
"Nobody is in a better position to provide education than the county executive," he said. "There is no substitute for the executive branch educating the public about this. And this has been a real education for me."