At the Wading River Motel on a recent Monday, women of varying ages and races can be seen sitting on lawn chairs and benches outside. They are talking on cell phones or soaking up the sun as children play in the grassy field in front of the drive-up rooms. Large bushes block out the hum of cars driving past on Route 25.
The Suffolk County Department of Social Services has been using the Wading River site to house some of its homeless population, in particular battered women and their children, since the motel was purchased by its current owner in January.
County officials say the site is needed because it provides a spot for homeless families from the Longwood and Riverhead school districts to stay local, so their children do not have to disrupt their studies.
But Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter said the motel owners are violating town code by operating as an emergency shelter, and that the motel is now facing fines and other legal repercussions.
“This is supposed to be a transient hotel for travelers,” he said. “And these people are not travelers.”
Mr. Walter said he was alerted by Riverhead Town Police Chief David Hegermiller and residents about two weeks ago to an increase in police and fire calls to the motel in the past six months.
Town police were called to the motel 37 times between January 1 and June 14 of this year, while they were called there only seven times from June 1 until December 31, 2010, according to records.
“We will have some domestic violence come out of there because a substantial portion of the homeless population are domestic violence victims,” said county Department of Social Services Commissioner Greg Blass.
Representatives from the motel did not respond to requests for comment.
When asked what town officials plan to do to stop the motel from operating as an emergency shelter, Mr. Walter answered: “We are going to continue to enforce the code.”
When pressed, Mr. Walter pointed to an ongoing investigation and declined to offer additional details.
But Mr. Blass, who as of Monday had not spoken with the supervisor regarding the matter, said he disagrees with Mr. Walter’s stance that the motel is out of code.
“We make it very clear to the motel operators and to our staff at the shelters that when it comes to fire code, we [must be] in compliance with local zoning,” Mr. Blass said, adding that he has not heard complaints from leaders from other Suffolk towns.
Riverhead Town attorneys refused to opine to a reporter as to whether or not Riverhead’s town code allows for motels to operate as emergency shelter.
But the town’s senior code enforcement investigator Kevin Maccabee said the motel’s owners, Wading River Development LLC, was issued a summons for operating without a rental permit on May 25. He said that the motel’s previous owner, listed as Dave Enterprises, did have a rental permit, but that paperwork needed to be updated when the property changed hands.
“It’s a process where they would have to submit an application to the town or certify through an architect or engineer that [the motel] is complying with code,” he said of obtaining a new permit.
The motel owner faces a fine of between $250 to $1,000 or imprisonment of 15 days if convicted of the charge.
The county has been using motels as overflow from its homeless shelters since 2009, when the economy collapsed. Mr. Blass noted that before the economic downturn, the department had about 300 cases of families and 150 singles in need of shelter. Today, that number has risen to 400 families and 250 singles at any given time.
“The department is required by law to provide housing when people on an emergency basis becomes homeless,” Mr. Blass said. “It is imprudent for us to place families in the communities where they are from.”
The Wading River Motel is the only site in Riverhead Town where new families are being placed, Mr. Blass said.
Mr. Blass noted that the motel is in a spot relatively secluded from other homes and that the homeless are under the supervision of counselors until they are able to find permanent housing.
He insisted Suffolk will continue to use the site until the homeless population shrinks to a size that can be handled by the county’s permanent shelters.
“They are local people who have fallen on hard times,” Mr. Blass said. “Our obligation is to do for [the homeless] what they cannot do for themselves, which is the definition of public service.”