Planned legislation would make this permanent by closing loophole allowing them to stay there
By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Residents concerned about the recent rape of a woman in a bar on East 27th Street and subsequent arrest of a man who had been living in the nearby Bellevue Men’s Shelter for the crime learned that all sex offenders have since been moved out of the shelter.
Matt Borden from the Department of Homeless Services made the announcement at the most recent 13th Precinct Community Council meeting on Tuesday, which was held at the Epiphany Parish Hall instead of its usual spot in the precinct because so many from the community were expected at the event. Councilmembers Dan Garodnick and Rosie Mendez were also at the meeting to discuss legislation that would put tighter restrictions on who is allowed at the shelter.
While the regular monthly meeting would usually consist of a report from the precinct’s commanding officer about recent crimes overall, new Executive Officer Paul Zangrilli, filling in for the new Commanding Officer Brandon Timoney, instead focused on the reason that meeting attendance had quadrupled to about 100 area residents.
“We’re in constant contact with DHS,” Zangrilli said. “(Sex offenders) can’t live in NYCHA properties and so they gravitate towards men’s shelters. We do pay constant attention to 400 East 30th and we now have an increased presence in darker areas and in places where people might be easier targets.”
DHS is moving towards having no sex offenders at the 30th Street Shelter on a permanent bassis to address safety concerns but Borden said, and Garodnick also emphasized, that the city has an obligation to address the growing homeless.
“We have 57,000 homeless people that require our attention and sympathy and this shelter is available on an emergency basis,” Garodnick said. “We are legally and morally mandated to give shelter to all who need it but we shouldn’t renege on our promise to keep people safe.”
One of the main concerns for many residents at the meeting was the proximity of the shelter to a number of neighborhood schools. State law dictates that sex offenders can’t be within a thousand feet of a school, but Borden clarified that DHS has been in compliance because this law actually only applies to sex offenders who are out on parole or on probation, which is why sex offenders were allowed at the shelter at all.
All sex offenders living at the shelter have since been moved elsewhere because of the recent incident, although Borden emphasized that this was a temporary measure that won’t necessarily prevent sex offenders who aren’t on parole or probation from checking in at any point in the near future, due to the loophole.
Mendez said that State Senator Tony Avella who represents a district in Queens will be introducing legislation soon to close the loophole and both she and Garodnick will be writing a resolution in support of the bill.
One resident expressed frustration that there are so many treatment facilities in the neighborhood and other residents asked multiple times what else they could do as a community.
When Garodnick suggested that one possible solution was to close the shelter, the remark was met by applause and cheers, which were quickly cut off when he added that he didn’t think that was the best route.
“There already aren’t enough shelters so that option isn’t realistic,” Mendez noted.
Both Councilmembers encouraged residents to write to the mayor. The City Council has been pushing to get a thousand extra police officers to step up the presence but the mayor hasn’t put it in his budget and Garodnick said that letters from residents can have a big impact.
Other residents expressed more general concerns about safety around the shelter due to hostile homeless men who harass children on their way to and from school, sex offenders or not.
“I don’t think anyone here would disagree that the needs of the homeless need to be addressed but it goes beyond sex offenders,” said one resident who lives a block away from the shelter. “There are very violent people who live in this shelter. They have needs but we have needs too. In the middle of the day not that long ago, a girl was grabbed by a man. She was able to get away, but this is a serious problem. When our children are affected, it becomes personal.”
Diane Stewart, a resident of Kips Bay Towers, said that she was continually harassed when she lived on East 24th Street and Second Avenue and was unpleasantly surprised when she found that the problem worsened when she moved.
“Has anyone ever thought of putting them in an industrial area?” she suggested.
Other residents who expressed frustration also advocated for relocating the shelter to a less residential area.
Captain Zangrilli noted that the precinct has been increasing its presence in the area but said that officers are modifying their procedures until they get the results they want.
“We’re always aware of what’s going on and it’s clear that what we’re doing there isn’t fully working,” he said. “We’re flooding the area with patrol and increasing our presence, and won’t stop until we have a handle on the situation.”
Melanie Aucello, vice president of the resident association for the NYCHA property at 344 East 28th Street and a resident there, and other residents said that they have called 911 when confronted by some of these men while they have been inappropriate or threatening, and it often takes almost half an hour for a response.
“Last week we called 911 and it took five phone calls before anyone came,” Aucello said. “There was a homeless man undressing in front of school children and it took five calls.”
Zangrilli said that there is no set response time that the NYPD can give but did concede that the 25 to 30 minutes that many residents cited was unacceptable.
Aucello, who has been regularly attending the community council meetings over the last year due to the behavior of many residents from the shelter around her building, said that she has formed a relationship with local representatives, including Mendez, because of this issue, but she has gotten frustrated at how often it continues to happen anyway, despite assurances that the problem is being addressed.
“We appreciate your rhetoric but it’s just that, rhetoric,” she said. “We’re not high on the priority list. Nobody responds. We don’t want rhetoric. We want something done.”