By Jeremiah Horrigan
They're destitute, without jobs or much hope of securing one. They're homeless and without much hope of finding one.
They're the people no one wants to employ or live near: level 2 and level 3 sex offenders — men and women who are legally required to report their presence to local authorities for the rest of their lives.
When they're released from prison, or move from another area, it falls to county Social Services departments to place them. Frequently, they wind up in small, family-run motels and boarding houses. And they have to report that address to authorities or face penalties, including arrest.
In the past year alone, 14 sex offenders — including 10 in Liberty in July — have been picked up for failing to register where they live, as required.
Their sometimes-clustered presence in some of the region's motels and boarding homes has prompted fear, anger and lawsuits in communities across the region, the state and the country.
And nowhere in the mid-Hudson has the outcry of late been louder than in the Town of Wawarsing in Ulster County.
Emotional, legal issues tangleWawarsing comprises five hamlets and the Village of Ellenville. According to the latest figures available from the state's Public Registry of Sex Offenders, there are currently 29 level 2 and level 3 sex offenders living in those communities. Only the City of Kingston, with 37, has more registered sex offenders in Ulster County.
The tiny and very rural hamlet of Kerhonkson is home to 17 sex offenders, according to the registry. Six of those offenders now reside at the Colonial Motel on Route 209.
To town Supervisor Scott Carlsen, those numbers strongly suggest that something's out of whack with the way indigent sex offenders are housed in the county.
Carlsen is recently retired from a career as an administrator in the state's correctional system, including years as a counselor in several sexual offender programs.
Housing sexual offenders in rural communities like Kerhonkson, he said, isn't good for offenders nor the community.
"They (sexual offenders) don't have cars. In order to get the services they need, they have to bike or hitchhike. Even from a therapeutic model, it makes no sense to me."
And, he says, the situation only gets worse when sex offenders are allowed to congregate.
- Worse how? Due to new crimes being committed (doubtful) or public hysteria?
"I'm unaware of any study of any treatment that it's a good thing to stick a dozen of these guys together in a single facility."
- And there is no study to show it's a bad thing either! People think that ex-offenders living together that they are going to devise a mass molestation plan or something, which is so ridiculous.
But there is little legal recourse available. Some, like the Town of Wallkill, or Middletown or Village of Ellenville, have passed laws that limit sex offenders from living near schools, playgrounds and parks.
Following the village's lead, the Wawarsing Town Board implemented a statute a couple of years ago that limits to 30 the number of days a person may reside at a town motel. Three of the town's motels, Carlsen said, have abided by the law. But not, he said, the Colonial.
After the motel's compliance became a campaign issue in 2011, with Republican candidates claiming that 12 sex offenders were residing at the Colonial, owner Shahida Rizvi filed suit in federal court contending the statute prevents her from operating her business.
- You'd think people would see politicians for what they are by now. Fear, children and ex-sex offenders are their scapegoats! They will use and exploit any issue to get elected or to look good to the sheeple of the country.
In a 31-page brief, Rizvi's lawyer Mark Stern argued that the town "fully intends to prevent (Rizvi) from operating her business through the mechanism of fines, criminal charges and criminal penalties."
Carlsen's anger only worsened when a convicted criminal — who was not a registered sex offender — was placed by county Social Services at the Colonial and arrested and charged with raping a woman last August.
Carlsen called the incident "nothing short of an outrage and criminal" on the part of Ulster County Social Services.
He accused the departments of violating the town's statute.
Michael Iapoce, director of the county's Social Services Department, sees the situation very differently.
Homelessness a key problemEvery county in the state must find housing for any individual, regardless of their criminal history, if they say they are homeless.
As far as Iapoce is concerned, that's the bottom line when his Social Services Department deals with homeless people.
And while his department has taken a lot of heat for housing indigent sex offenders, he said there's a public "misperception" that Social Services has more authority and responsibility than it actually does.
- If you stop the insanity then maybe ex-offenders can get a job and live somewhere else, but the very laws the idiotic politicians are passing is what is causing all these problems, not the ex-offenders!
Sex offenders are emerging from a highly structured prison environment, he said; the services they require are determined by the county's Probation Department and state Department of Corrections.
Marijane Knudsen, the department's director of economic support, said that prisoners being released into communities — especially sex offenders — need better discharge plans to guide their re-introduction to society.
She also said there are larger issues, including the need for better housing for anyone who needs it.
"No one deserves to live in a hotel. Everyone should have access to permanent, safe housing," she said.
That need, said Nancy Schmidt, can be a pivotal aspect of what she called "an age-old problem."
Lack of jobs compounds issueSchmidt is deputy director of the county's probation department. The lack of stable housing and job opportunities for sex offenders, she said, are the two biggest factors affecting the successful integration of an indigent offender into society.
Housing availability are sometimes prohibited by the very laws that are aimed at protecting children from predators, such as laws that restrict sex offenders from living near schools, playgrounds and parks.
In a city like Kingston, Schmidt said, that reduces the potential housing choices considerably. Rural, isolated locations like Kerhonkson are at least less likely to pose a threat to children living nearby.
And yes, she said, while Social Services is responsible for housing homeless sex offenders, there are times when the department will allow housing sex offenders in a facility with other offenders.
Sometimes, it's a better choice than having an offender move from "couch to couch" or live in a car or a tent, where supervision is more difficult and the threat of a recurrence could be increased.
"Without employment or stable housing, there's a higher risk of a return," she said.
And with a sigh, she summarized the situation in two words:
- Not really! Get rid of the residency restrictions and take the registry offline, then many can integrate back into society, get a job, home and move on with their lives.