Management of an East Williamsburg homeless shelter says they would rather close the facility than make room for 50 sex offenders being sent there by New York City’s Department of Homeless Services.
Administrators from The Doe Fund, a nonprofit organization which independently owns and operates the Peter Jay Sharp Center for Opportunity, believe the transfers to be level two and three sex offenders, classified by the state to be moderate to high risks for reoffending, respectively.
“DHS did not identify them as such, but we know that levels two and three are most likely to be homeless and in the system because of the legal restrictions imposed upon them,” says The Doe Fund’s director of external affairs, Alexander Horwitz.
Those legal restrictions include prohibitions outlawing certain sex offenders from living within 1,000 feet of an area where children congregate. According to state law, sex offenders under parole or probation supervision, regardless of their risk level, are subject to residency restrictions if their victims were under the age of 18. Level three sex offenders on parole or probation, regardless of the age of their victims, also are subject to residency restrictions.
Due to the density of schools, parks and playgrounds in New York, these restrictions mean that many homeless sex offenders can legally reside at one of only 17 compliant shelters — a list that the Sharp Center, being more than 1,500 feet away from the nearest school (and three blocks from the Morgan L stop) found itself on for the first time in April.
The 400-bed Sharp Center is legally obligated to accept anyone referred to it by DHS if it has vacancies, but management says they are at capacity, and claims that this is the first time in the facility’s 12-year history that the department has attempted to forcibly move in sex offenders.
“We’ve had a long-standing agreement with the city to send us individuals who can benefit from our program, so as not to waste what are very valuable bed spaces for folks who can go to work and get back on their feet,” says Horwitz, referring to Ready, Willing & Able, The Doe Fund’s transitional housing and employment program, which operates in part from the Sharp Center.
Developed over the last 25 years, Ready, Willing & Able provides homeless men with a year or more of housing, employment and vocational training. Program members progress from working in their facilities to cleaning streets as part of “Men in Blue” crews to becoming professionally licensed in one of six careers, such as commercial driving, culinary arts and building maintenance. The final step is obtaining full-time employment and unsubsidized housing.
With Ready, Willing & Able, the Sharp Center and its other programs and facilities, The Doe Fund aims to help more than 2,000 homeless people each year. It has assisted 22,000 since the organization’s inception in 1985.
“There’s never been another administration that didn’t see the value in Ready, Willing & Able, and make an effort not to send us sex offenders,” says The Doe Fund’s co-founder, Harriet McDonald.
McDonald believes that DHS’s recent efforts are a panicked response to the murder of a Bronx shelter director by a former resident in April, as well as the sexual assault charges against a Kips Bay shelter resident and previously convicted rapist that same month.
“There was a definite knee-jerk reaction to these two terrible incidents, where all of a sudden [DHS was] saying, ‘We have to do something because the media is all over us and Kips Bay is going crazy and we look incompetent,’” says McDonald. “It’s not that the sex offenders suddenly appeared in the shelter system, of course. But [DHS] never developed a plan.”
DHS’s new plan appears to be forcibly relocating the homeless sex offenders to compliant shelters regardless of the cost.
Citing an upcoming court date with The Doe Fund over the transfers, DHS Press Secretary Nicole Cueto was unable to comment on the situation beyond issuing the following statement:
DHS must house residency-restricted sex offenders in facilities that are in compliance with the state guidelines that are at least 1,000 feet away from schools. This site is one of them. We have been very willing to work with the provider - including more funding and personnel for security, mental health and social service - but we have a legal mandate from New York State to provide shelter to anyone in need, and we can’t cherry-pick our clients.
The Sharp Center’s management says DHS fails to distinguish between their own specialized programming and “cherry-picking clients.”
“Sex offenders are inhibited, by the laws on the books and by their condition, from reintegrating with society, and because that is what our program is about, we can’t serve them,” says Horwitz. “The population that we work with ... are people who have been denied economic opportunity. From [DHS’s] standpoint, that person is the same as a person who’s homeless because they’re a sex offender? It doesn’t make any sense.”
City Council Member Antonio Reynoso, whose district includes the Sharp Center, raises another aspect of the issue: that of “fair share,” or each neighborhood doing its part in hosting services that may be undesirable to local residents but which are necessary for the city’s well-being.
While declining to speak with Gothamist, the councilmember issued a statement supporting the Doe Fund, but stressing that he is “committed to the principle of fair share.”
“There are many types of facilities that no one in any community wants in their backyard, yet all communities need to do their part,” Reynono says in his statement. “I encourage members of my community to approach this issue remembering that we need to do our part to end the homelessness crisis.”
Contradicting Council Member Reynoso’s appeal to neighborhood fairness is The New York Daily News’ survey of sex offenders by neighborhood. Relying on data from the State Sex Offender Registry, The Daily News’ map illustrates that the Sharp Center’s zip-code (11237) belongs to a cluster of Brooklyn neighborhoods with the largest populations of sex offenders in New York City. Thirty-six sex offenders reside in 11237, while just 18 reside in 11368 (Corona, Queens), the most populous zip code in the entire city.
Regardless of sex-offender-to-resident ratios, many of the Sharp Center’s neighbors are not happy about DHS’s plan. Local business owner and landlord Michelle Sandoval has lived in the area for more than 30 years and has two children who attend school not far from the shelter. She and the regular customers of her deli are concerned about the safety of the neighborhood’s young students.
“It’s definitely nerve-wracking to have to worry about that and know that she could possibly encounter someone going to school, coming home from school,” says Sandoval, referring to her 15-year-old daughter. “I don’t pick her up, I don’t drop her off; she goes on her own with her friends. It’s a big fear for me and for a lot of people in the neighborhood that I’ve been speaking with …. Everybody’s in a little uproar about it.”
If the relocation of the sex offenders does go through, Sandoval plans to start escorting her children to and from school, as well as asking her customers to write letters about the issue to their government representatives.
But it may not come to that. The Doe Fund has explicitly refused to eject any current members of Ready, Willing & Able to accommodate sex offenders. Sex offenders sent to the facility by DHS in the past have been transferred to other shelters, and The Doe Fund has sought a temporary restraining order against the 50 incoming offenders, though it was denied.
Since then, The Doe Fund has filed a suit against the city, DHS and its commissioner. According to management, losing the court case leaves them with only one option: shuttering the Sharp Center and, hopefully, finding a new home for its residents, as well as the Ready, Willing & Able program.
“These people need help, we’re not debating that,” says Horwitz of the sex offenders. “But they’re not going to get it in our facility.”
Arvind Dilawar is a writer/editor whose work has appeared in Newsweek, The Guardian, The New York Daily News and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter — @ArvSux — or email him at email@example.com.