The legislative chess game to remove nearly 30 homeless sex offenders from trailers in Riverside and Westhampton Beach welcomed a new player to the game on Tuesday when the Suffolk County Legislature approved a veto override that will authorize the county Department of Social Services to move forward with a private vendor to provide housing.
That vendor, Haven House/Bridges Inc., of Brentwood, can now provide housing in several different legislative districts throughout the county, with each location housing no more than six homeless sex offenders.
"I would suspect at this point, they [Haven House] should be considering the first step of site selection," said DSS Commissioner, Greg Blass. Blass said he would be reaching out to Haven House next week to start working on the details of a contract.
As the head of Social Services, a department under County Executive Steve Levy, Blass said he favors a "voucher system" used in other counties, including Nassau and Westchester. The system provides nightly vouchers for housing at hotels.
But with a 14-3 vote to override Levy's veto, the legislature made its voice clear. Legis. Tom Barraga, R-West Islip; Steve Stern, D-Huntington; and Lou D'Amaro, D-Huntington Station, rejected the measure.
"The legislature has spoken," said Dan Aug, spokesman for Levy. "Now it's up to the vendor in determining how to go about it."
A message with Haven House/Bridges was not immediately returned. On its website, it says the organization provides, "housing, training and guidance to homeless families, single mothers and their young children, as well as individuals and families affected by HIV/AIDS."
Riverside, Westhampton Beach and Riverhead residents and politicians have long said they are being "held hostage," as Riverside resident Brad Bender said at Tuesday's legislature meeting. The trailer system was instituted nearly four years ago, originally as a temporary measure. Subsequent attempts by East End legislators to remove the trailers, or approve alternative plans, have been vetoed and sustained by the legislature.
One plan, submitted by Community Housing Innovations last summer, was similar to the Haven House plan, offering several different sites throughout Suffolk County. However the plan would not disclose the site locations until after 30 days of operation. The Haven House plan will disclose those sites before opening, though Aug said the county executive is still leery of future litigation. A resolution specifically authorizing Haven House as a vendor was necessary because the organization originally submitted its plan late, and it was not previously recognized as an adult shelter provider.
Levy has written the following statement on more than one veto statement: the "simple solution to the problem remains as follows: Reinstate the voucher system, whereupon we will close the trailers and save money by no longer having to transport homeless sex offenders such great distances."
Between transportation and funding the trailers, Blass said in 2010 the average cost to shelter one homeless sex offender was nearly $50,000. The cost was even more in previous years, before the county purchased buses with which to transport the homeless sex offenders. He said a price with Haven House has yet to be negotiated, and defended a $90 voucher for housing per night as the best solution to housing the ex-criminals.
"Usually when we get receipts back, it turns out being about $70 a night," he said. In a separate e-mail, Blass' office clarified that number at $75.23 ($27,458 annually).
"And we do not ignore the plight of these people after we give them a bed to sleep in night after night," Blass said. "If they have disability needs, they are channeled to social security. If they have substance abuse, they are channeled to rehabilitation. It doesn't end with an overnight stay."
However North Fork Legislator Ed Romaine, R-Center Moriches, said that the voucher system doesn't serve the rest of the county.
"My primary concern is for the safety of the residents," Romaine said. "There is no monitoring of these individuals with a voucher system. I'm sympathetic for people who are homeless, less sympathetic for people who are homeless because of crimes they've committed — particularly against children. Nonetheless I understand the county's obligation. I'm just hoping this plan can cut down the recidivism rate by offering these people counseling and job training while keeping the general public safe."
South Fork Legis. Jay Schneiderman, I-Montauk, said that living out of a motel or hotel was no way to live — for anybody.
"Part of a good program would be to find permanent housing," said Schneiderman, who sponsored Tuesday's legislation. "The county has been failing in its job."