BY FRANCO FINO
One community’s years-long fight against a homeless shelter is continuing.
On Tuesday, Councilman Ruben Wills (D-South Jamaica) held a press conference outside the Skyway Men’s Shelter on South Conduit Avenue in South Ozone Park deriding the housing of dozens of sex offenders inside – a problem residents thought was solved three years ago.
As per the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Service’s Sex Offender Registry, there were, as of Monday, 52-registered level two and level three sex offenders living in the former motel.
The Skyway Men’s Shelter is also notable for causing controversy when it changed from a family shelter to a men’s shelter without notifying the public in February 2011. During that time, several children who resided in the shelter and attended PS 124 were forced to pack up and relocate halfway through the school year.
In the summer of 2012, Community Board 10 discovered the shelter was housing dozens of sex offenders and called on the Department of Homeless Services to have them removed from the shelter, which is located several blocks from PS 124 and near a residential community. More than three dozen offenders were moved from the shelter in April 2014.
“We want to announce today that we have entered another round of lobbying [New York State and the Department of Homeland Services],” Wills said. “Today we want to announce that as of yesterday the Department of Homeless Services has announced that this is not a compliant shelter and they will be removing the sexual offenders in an expedited basis out of this shelter.”
According to State Penal Law, registered sex offenders are not permitted to live within a 1000-foot vicinity of a school or facility that cares for children. The law mentions that streets and sidewalks are part a public space’s composition. PS 124 serves children from ages four to eleven.
“Since state law prohibits some sex-offenders from areas accessible to the public near schools and since PS 124 and public areas around it seem to be less than the required distance from the Skyway Shelter, Community Board 10 joins Council Member Wills in seeking to have the sex offenders living in the Skyway shelter removed by DHS.” said District Manager of Community Board 10 Karyn Peterson.
“[In 2011] we had no safeguard in saying that there would be sexual offenders down the block from a school. We contacted DHS and they also told us that they would not be able to tell us if sexual offenders were living in the shelter. But they went out their way to tell us that [sexual offenders living in Skyway] was compliant by state law because it was a 1000 feet away from the school and park.”
The South Ozone Park Civic Association added their concerns over the housing of sex offenders at Skyway.
“The Skyway Shelter has always been a concern for our community ever since it was converted from a family shelter into a men’s shelter,” the group said in a prepared statement. “Our concerns were heightened even more when we discovered that sex offenders were being housed there. Therefore, in view of the recent discovery concerning the violations of the residency restrictions, we are in support of Council Member Wills calling for DHS to take immediate action in correcting this violation. It will enable the parents in the community to feel at ease when their kids go to the playgrounds and parks in the surrounding area.”
Wills noted that the DHS had reported the distance between Skyway and PS 124 inaccurately multiple times.
“We have made several measurements and have gone back and forth with [DHS],” he said.
According to a survey conducted by the Wills’ office, the estimated distance between PS 124 and the Skyway Men’s Shelter is less than 930 feet.
“As of today, the DHS has announced that [Skyway] is not a compliant shelter and they will be removing the sexual offenders in an expedited basis out of the shelter,” the councilman added.
Wills also expressed his displeasure for facilities like the Skyway shelter existing in his district. “Why are these negative [facilities] placed in minority communities,” Wills ardently questioned.
He gave reason to believe that if it were up to his discretion, it would be different.
“[City Council] cannot legislate the siting of shelters because it rest solely in the power of the state,” Wills said. “I believe that the program is flawed.”
Wills also called on City Comptroller Scott Stringer to audit the DHS.