Monday May 6, 2013

UTICA, N.Y. (AP) -- Since state and local laws about where they can live were tightened around a decade ago, sex offenders have become more likely to end up homeless.

That’s caused problems for counties across the state, because they are required by law to find housing for anyone who needs shelter within their borders.

Different counties have cobbled together different strategies to deal with the thorny issue, but officials and homeless advocates from several counties said there is no easy answer.

"I don’t know what the solution is," said Greta Guarton of the advocacy group Long Island Coalition for the Homeless. "We, of course, think everyone needs a place to live, but certainly understand the community’s concerns."

The issue came to a head in Oneida County in February, after an Observer-Dispatch report found that at least eight Level 2 and Level 3 sex offenders had been housed at three North Utica motels in a two-week period. Amid public outcry, two of the motels announced they would stop taking homeless individuals referred by the county, and County Executive Anthony Picente has said he is looking for other options.

"We have to find a solution given the lay of the land here, in terms of the shelters, the neighborhoods and the community," he said. "It’s an ongoing process and discussion."

Sex offenders have been required to register with officials where they live since the mid-1990s. The federal government and states across the nation adopted so-called Megan’s Laws after the 1994 murder of Megan Kanka, a New Jersey child who was killed by a released sex offender living near her home.

In subsequent years, states and many communities adopted laws regulating where sex offenders are allowed to live. In Oneida County, a 2007 law prohibits sex offenders from living within 1,500 feet of a school, child care facility, playground or park.

Counties in New York must find housing for any individual, regardless of their criminal history, if they come to the Department of Social Services and say they are homeless.

Oneida County’s emergency shelters do not accept sex offenders, people with violent felony convictions and people with active addictions. That has forced the county to find other alternatives. In the state law, motels are suggested as an option.

Neighboring Onondaga County doesn’t have the same problem, because its emergency shelters accept people in those categories, Ben Dublin, chief of staff for Onondaga County Executive Joanne Mahoney, said.

In Suffolk County for the past six years, homeless level 2 or 3 sex offenders have been placed in trailers located a distance from population centers. In 2007, when the practice began, the trailers were supposed to be moved once every two weeks to different undisclosed locations, but that has ceased, according to published reports. Now, after public concern over the locations, the trailers are set to be shut down, and the offenders moved to local shelters.

Officials from Suffolk County did not return repeated calls.

Guarton said Suffolk was contracting with a private nonprofit to operate a shelter for homeless families in a former motel. The county had hoped that would free up space in other shelters for the sex offenders, but some of the shelters balked and the trailers are still needed, she said.

In Albany County, several shelters accept sex offenders as part of their contract with the county, but there is sometimes overflow, acting Social Services Commissioner David Kircher said. He said his staff is in regular contact with the state Parole and county Probation departments.

"We know who they are and what their status is and if one of those releases has a violent history," he said.

As a precaution, if a person isn’t a parolee, staff also checks state, local and national sex offender registries, Kircher said. If there isn’t space at the shelters, Albany sends the individual to one of several motels.

One of the communities with such a motel has adopted a local ordinance requiring establishments that accept homeless referrals from the county to post a sign out front saying there may be sex offenders present.

Also, the ordinance has created a system under which sex offenders are designated points related to their status. A Level 3 offender counts as three points, and a Level 2 offender as 2, for example. Motels are allowed to have offenders carrying up to just six points at any given time.