Just over a year after what Suffolk County officials called a "raid" on the Wading River Motel, which the county now contracts to house homeless families, Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter said he still has concerns regarding the numbers of homeless people living at the facility.
On Wednesday, a representative of the Suffolk County Department of Social Services said, despite last year's code enforcement convergence on the motel, where the Town of Riverhead acted on a search warrant; this year, things have been "status quo."
"There have been no problems there," a representative of Commissioner Gregory Blass' office, who asked to remain unnamed, said. "Everything is fine."
According to most recent data, the Wading River Motel now houses 22 homeless families, or a total of 99 individuals, at the facility.
Walter agreed the motel was "coming into compliance" with the town's ordinances, correcting violations found last year that he said included make-shift stove tops and hot plates, electrical issues, and a converted living space in an "illegal" basement. "We haven't had trouble," he said.
But, Walter voiced concerns about the sheer number of 99 homeless individuals living year-round in a motel that was build for transient occupancy.
"That place was not designed to handle that capacity," the supervisor said.
Questioning whether the cesspool system could handle the number of individuals living at the site, Walter also said he still had concerns about electrical and other issues.
"The Town of Riverhead raised the red flag on the electrical problems. I did what I had to do," he said, referring to a code enforcement action last year that sparked a firestorm of controversy.
Last August, Riverhead inspectors, acting on a search warrant, where homeless familiies, including 59 school age children, were living at the time.
Police and code enforcement officers asked residents to show identification and took photographs of the IDs.
Blass, who said at the time that he wasn't contacted by the town beforehand or during the inspection, sharply criticized the action, calling it “a raid” and releasing a press statement describing the warrant as “fueled by the reprehensibly unprincipled behavior of town officials.”
Walter said this week that he had been "chastised by the county" for his actions, which, he said, were meant to protect residents.
But with the financial landscape being what it is today, Walter said the Town of Riverhead has limited resources to pursue further action -- and the responsiblity for the safety of homeless individuals living at the motel lies with the county.
"We've sounded the alarm. The rest is the responsiblity of Social Services and the county. If the place burns down, and if someone gets hurt, we will turn to Social Services and say, 'We told you.'"
The motel, which is an older building, was never meant to handle such a crowd of individuals year round, Walter said. "Social Services is doing a huge disservice to those families," he said.
The homeless facility, Walter added, also places "a huge burden" on the Riverhead Central School District, and said many of the homeless living at the motel are not from the area. "The county says they're local, but by and large, they're not."
Blass protested last year's enforcement action and said that a search warrant should apply only to situations in which violations are suspected but an owner refuses to cooperate with authorities, saying this had never been the case with the motel’s owner, Anthony Marino.
Walter explained at the time that a search warrant was needed because the town had recently been told of fire code and building code violations that may not have existed when the town, along with an official from the county’s health department, conducted a first inspection that was announced in advance.
Town Attorney Robert Kozakiewicz said last year that violations included make-shift stove tops improperly mounted and wired, which he said are not even allowed by state law in rental rooms measuring only 175 square feet, the size of most rooms at the motel.
He also said that police and code enforcement officers found a furnished basement apartment with obstructed entrances and exits in case of a fire.
Blass responded at the time that Kozakievicz was mistaken in suggesting the stove tops posed a potential fire hazard and that they were unusable and disconnected.
Last year, Walter initially stated that he would also ask the county to pull residents out of the motel while the alleged violations were being corrected; that did not happen. A proposed lawsuit also never materialized.
Blass has said use of the motel and other motels around the county, including the Hidden Cove Motel in Hampton Bays, which caused an outcry amongst neighbors who were opposed to utilizing the site as a homeless facility in November, is necessary because of the growing numbers of families made homeless by the economic downturn. In addition, Blass has said that the motels are used only temporarily for shelter as homeless individuals work to find permanent housing and employment.
Neither Blass nor Marino, the motel's owner, could immediately be reached for comment.