Thursday, January 08, 2009

County's trailer hocus-pocus

I give a lot of credit to Mason Haas and Mike Brewer for trying to do something constructive about the county warehousing homeless sex offenders in our community. (They've organized a community forum Jan. 15 at Riverhead High School. Assemblymen Marc Alessi and Fred Thiele, County Legislators Ed Romaine and Jay Schneiderman, and representatives of the county Department of Social Services will be on hand.)

Getting people together is a good first step. It's important for people to understand why the county is dumping all of its homeless sex offenders in a trailer at the jail in Riverside and why the county's policy is wrong.

The county has a legal obligation to provide homeless people with a place to sleep. It turned out there was a saturation of homeless shelters housing registered sex offenders in the Coram area, and when the extent of the saturation was exposed by news reports, there was a loud public outcry. In response, the county announced a new program that would rotate homeless sex offenders among several trailers at different locations throughout the county. That way, according to chief deputy commissioner of social services Greg Blass, the burden would be shared. That sounded reasonable. But the rotation thing ended almost as fast as it was begun, and the trailer in the parking lot of the county jail in Riverside quickly became the only place where homeless sex offenders can bed down as the county's guests.

It got crowded. So they brought in an even bigger trailer. And they reportedly are outfitting the bigger trailer with bunk beds, so they can cram even more in there.

County social services officials are big on double-talk when it comes to explaining why Riverhead-area residents shouldn't be concerned about hosting the county's flophouse for homeless convicted child molesters and rapists. They are brought to the trailer only to sleep, we're told. They are dropped off at county social services offices throughout Suffolk during the day, we're told. Officials give no clear answers about how these men spend their days after being dropped off. Nor do they explain what happens to them on weekends and holidays when the social services offices are closed -- other than to say that they are driven to some up-island industrial park for showers. (The trailer has no shower -- or kitchen.) But, we're told, they're not left to wander the streets of Riverhead. So don't worry.

But we do worry. And so we should. The county's track record on this subject does not inspire confidence. And the trailer is a short walk from our public library, the historical society (a popular place for school class trips) and several public schools.

If the sex offenders are dumped at their "home" county social services centers on weekdays, as we're told, what threats do they pose to the communities near those centers? You should be interested in that, too, because Riverhead hosts one of the county's five social services centers. How many of the homeless sex offenders are being dropped off on East Main Street in Riverhead, then -- and left to wander our streets? We have a right to straight answers, and we're not getting them.

East End county legislators Ed Romaine and Jay Schneiderman introduced a bill in October that would limit to four the number of registered sex offenders that could be placed in emergency housing (like the trailer) in any given zip code. The bill hasn't gone anywhere and even if it is adopted, the county executive would likely veto it.

We need to hold our local officials accountable for their inexcusable passivity on this subject. Supervisor Phil Cardinale and the Town Board have barely said anything. Three councilmen are ex-cops. I can't believe they're not incensed at the county dumping homeless sex offenders on our community like this. The fourth is married to the chief deputy commissioner of social services, the very agency that's perpetrating this mess, so her reticence is more easily explained.

The Town Board's great contribution to the "fight" against the trailer was to make a park out of a little strip of land on West Main Street -- which they named after self-appointed town government watchdog George Schmelzer. I wish Mr. Schmelzer were alive to give the board what-for about its pathetically lame attempt to "do something" about the sex offender trailer dumped in our backyard by the county. Never mind putting his name on it. Mr. Schmelzer always told it like it was. I can only just imagine what he'd be saying at the Town Hall meeting room podium.