Forum on Suffolk County’s homeless sex offender policy draws 300 people

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A crowd of nearly 300 jeered Suffolk County representatives during a forum held last Thursday, January 15, at Riverhead High School as county officials defended their decision to place a trailer housing nearly all of the county’s homeless sex offenders near the County Jail in Riverside.

The organizers of the forum—Andrea Spilka of Eastport, Michael Brewer of Flanders, and Mason Haas of Riverhead—invited the representatives, along with elected state, county and town officials, to discuss how other communities should also share the burden of housing Suffolk’s homeless sex offender population.

The Suffolk County Department of Social Services now directs all of the county’s homeless sex offenders seeking temporary shelter to a trailer located in the parking lot of the Suffolk County Jail in Riverside, and sends any offenders the trailer cannot accommodate to a similar facility on Old Country Road in Westhampton. The Riverside trailer, which held 18 people as recently as January 14, has been there since 2007 and can house up to 20 people at once.

The Westhampton trailer, which is near the Suffolk County Police Academy shooting range, provided shelter to three people on the night of January 14, according to county officials. That trailer can hold as many as eight people at once.

In 2007, Suffolk officials stated that they would rotate the two trailers using different locations, including county-owned properties in western Suffolk. They later reneged on that arrangement, stating that the jail property is the ideal place for such a facility as security guards can easily monitor the trailers overnight.

Representatives of the Suffolk County Department of Social Services attending last week’s forum, which included Commissioner Janet DeMarzo, did not indicate that night whether or not they would change that policy anytime soon.

“We were misled from the get-go,” shouted Delia McKernan, president of the Smith Point Beach Property Owners Association, as she pointed her finger at agency officials. Ms. McKernan and several other audience members said the county should feel ashamed for not sticking to its original plan to rotate the trailers.

Ms. DeMarzo defended the county’s decision, noting that officials have not rotated the trailers because of a “county property issue,” suggesting that the county lacks other locations that could accommodate the trailers.

Additionally, Ms. DeMarzo stated that the New York State Department of Corrections, and the divisions of parole and probation that operate within it, have put her office in a very difficult position by charging that it find temporary shelter for homeless sex offenders.

“I never thought I’d have to defend homeless sex offenders,” Ms. DeMarzo said, noting that she is also in charge of the county’s child protective services programs.

In spite of the demands and pleas made by Southampton and Riverhead town residents during the nearly three-hour meeting, Roland Hampson, a spokesman for the Suffolk County Department of Social Services, on Friday reemphasized the agency’s stance that the Riverside location is still the “best alternative” for the primary trailer.

In an e-mail sent on Tuesday, Mr. Hampson added that the county will look at state-owned properties in Suffolk that could possibly accommodate the trailer. He did not offer any possible state-owned properties that could be utilized.

Additionally, Mr. Hampson’s e-mail did not explain why department officials cannot utilize county land, such as the Suffolk County Police Department headquarters in Yaphank, as a possible location for the larger trailer. A second e-mail from Mr. Hampson emphasized that his department is only looking at state-owned properties.

In another development, Riverhead Town Supervisor Phil Cardinale, who attended last week’s forum, said Friday that he is considering taking legal action against Suffolk County to get the Riverside trailer relocated. Mr. Cardinale said the trailer is located less than a quarter mile from George Schmelzer Park, violating a county law that prohibits sex offenders from living near parks, libraries, schools and other areas where children congregate.

Mr. Cardinale, who is a lawyer, said he has asked his town’s legal counsel to look into the matter.

Ms. Spilka, meanwhile, suggested that the county consider the Pilgrim Psychiatric Center in Brentwood, which is run by the state and slated for redevelopment, as a possible location for the trailer. State Senator Kenneth LaValle and State Assemblyman Fred Thiele Jr.—both of whom were invited guests at the forum—said they would look for state-owned properties that could possible accommodate the units.

Some audience members and State Assemblyman Marc Alessi, whose district includes Riverhead Town, offered their own ideas about where to send the homeless sex offenders. Mr. Alessi said the county should house them on a boat, a suggestion that elicited laughs and cheers from audience members.

“Send them to Plum Island!” shouted one audience member. “Send them to Great Gull Island!” yelled another person, referring to a small island near Plum Island.

Suffolk County Deputy Executive Ben Zwirn explained that the Department of Social Services has “become the bad guy,” though it should not be entirely blamed for the current situation. He stressed that the county department is the “last resort agency” in finding shelter for homeless sex offenders.

County officials had previously stated that the jail property in Riverside is the ideal place for the trailer because security guards can easily monitor the facility overnight. The county noted that the trailer occupants are transported, via taxi, back to their hometowns each morning, which discourages them from visiting downtown Riverhead. However, locals have stressed that the Riverhead Free Library and a park are both within walking distance to the trailer.

When an audience member suggested the trailer be moved to the H. Lee Dennison building in Hauppauge, the county’s western headquarters, Mr. Zwirn said that site could not be used because a day care center operates in the building. The placement of a trailer at the site would violate county law, according to Mr. Zwirn.

That explanation did not satisfy many of those attending the forum, some of whom noted that the Riverside trailer is located near downtown Riverhead, the Riverhead Free Library and other locations where children congregate.

“I’m ashamed of this level of government!” yelled out a man from the back of the Riverhead High School auditorium, immediately before he walked out of the meeting.

Other forum attendees, including Suffolk County Legislator Ed Romaine, said the county’s decision to keep both trailers in Southampton Town is simply a “bad policy.”

“The heart of this issue is the failure of government to deal with the issue in an open and frank manner,” Mr. Romaine said. “No one was notified about the trailer. There was no public meeting.”

Additionally, Mr. Romaine said the county’s decision to concentrate all of its homeless sex offenders near the jail has turned Riverhead into a dumping ground for such convicts. “And the effect of their actions speaks louder than their words,” Mr. Romaine said, referring to county officials.

Audience members gave the county legislator a loud ovation following his comments.

Mr. Cardinale argued that the trailer has hurt the greater Riverhead community, noting that many of those seeking shelter can often been seen walking the streets. He noted that Riverhead Town Police arrested a 47-year-old man on October 20 and charged him with indecent exposure. That man, who was not identified, was being housed at the Riverside trailer, according to Mr. Cardinale. “The same sex offender was arrested for lying on the curb at the 7-Eleven,” Mr. Cardinale continued.

Mary Anne Corwin of Flanders told county officials that she will not allow her daughter, a sixth-grader at the Pulaski Street School in Riverhead, to walk to the Riverhead Free Library after classes are over. Ms. Corwin’s daughter also cannot stay home alone—a Level 2 sex offender lives next door to their home, she said. As a result, she has had to hire a baby-sitter to care for her daughter after school.

Mr. LaValle pointed to the nearly 300 people who braved last Thursday night’s bad weather to fill the high school auditorium as evidence that the county needs to change its policy and start rotating the trailers.

“In my years of experience, with the number of citizens who came out on a night like tonight, it’s rare that there will not be a solution of some sort,” Mr. LaValle said.

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