Please welcome Ruth McDade, Director of Development at the Association for Mental Health and Wellness, as a guest blogger. Her story below inspires and energizes us to continue the important work we do every day. Kudos to her team that included Joanne Massimo, Greg Dutcher, Phil Erwin, and John Rago. ~ Michael Stoltz
It was a frigid January day in eastern Suffolk County with the temperature reaching a bristling high of 20 degrees. Joanne Massimo, Program Director for Suffolk County United Veterans, a project of the Association for Mental Health and Wellness, decided to enter the local McDonald’s to inform them that she and a team of four were participating in the annual Long Island Homeless Count, conducted under the auspices of the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless (LICH). Joanne advised Theresa, a McDonald’s employee, that we would be able to provide food, clothing, toiletry items, and resources for shelter. She left Theresa her card with a request for someone to contact her if it appeared a homeless person was at the restaurant.
Within two hours, Joanne received a text message from someone named Lisa, who wrote that she had used up all the minutes on her phone and could only text and could not place an actual call. Lisa said she was homeless and asked for our help. Greg Dutcher — a volunteer and a Veteran on our team — and I were deployed to go find Lisa.
When we entered the McDonald’s, Theresa turned and nodded her head to the seating area. Our bright yellow jackets emblazoned with the word “Volunteer” made our role and purpose clear.
Lisa is a young woman in her twenties. She was carrying a large backpack and sitting at a booth eating a hamburger. The first thing she said was that she was worried that she would be asked to leave the McDonald’s at any moment and that she was hungry and only had 75 cents. We bought Lisa a full lunch, which she gratefully ate.
Lisa told us that she had been couch surfing for the past two or three months. She had sometimes stayed with her mother or boyfriend, but was no longer welcomed at either residence. We noticed Lisa had a large bruise on her face that had begun to heal. She said that she didn’t know where she would be sleeping that evening. To make matters even more complicated, Lisa informed us that she was seven months pregnant (she thought she was five because she wasn’t that big) and that she was a daily heroin user (and had not yet gotten high that day). We provided Lisa with food and supplies and a list of housing resources.
While our role officially ended at this point, we decided to bring Lisa to a local homeless shelter where she could be considered for emergency housing assistance. We were informed, however, that if Lisa screened positive for drugs, she could not receive housing and would be directed to contact the local Social Services office. Before we could say goodbye to Lisa, she had been brought into the interview room and the door was closed. We left the shelter hoping for the best.
We then met Tony, also referred by Theresa at McDonald’s. Tony became tearful and repeatedly asked for help, saying that he had been on the streets for three nights and could not get warm. He asked for food and our team provided him with a meal, which he ate with sincere gratitude.
Tony told us he was 50-years-old and had previously been at a homeless shelter but had his money and food stolen. He admitted to smoking “weed” and drinking alcohol but said he was clean for the past three days. He also added he had schizophrenia, received a shot of Haldol each month, the most recent being a week prior at a local hospital emergency room. Tony said he receives SSI/SSD benefits of $825.00 per month and gave us the name of his representative payee and case manager with another mental health agency.
Our team wanted to help Tony further so we placed a call to the homeless shelter to see if they still had a bed for Tony. We were informed that all placements needed preauthorization from the Suffolk County Department of Social Services so he needed to first go there for shelter assistance. Tony asked to be driven to the local DSS office so we gave him a ride. En route, we contacted his case manager who spoke with Tony. They discussed a plan for housing with the ultimate goal of him moving into permanent housing. As we drove away, we were grateful that we had received that call from Theresa at McDonald’s.
Later that afternoon, Joanne received a second text. Lisa was not accepted into the shelter as she had tested positive for drugs. She said she was at the local library and asked if we could help her. The team decided to first go to the area hospital and inquire if a medical screening would be an appropriate intervention. After describing Lisa’s condition, we were informed that the hospital could see her but, since they were did not have a detoxification unit on-site, she would need to be referred at another hospital that specialized in substance abuse treatment. Our team drove to the library to find Lisa, but it had closed. Joanne texted Lisa with the local DSS number hoping she could take those first steps and call for assistance. But without any minutes left on her phone, we were concerned that she might not even get our message, let alone be able to make the call to DSS.
Another aspect of our Long Island Homeless Count assignment was to serve as a morning host site at the Synergy Center in Riverhead for anyone who was homeless and seeking assistance. (Across town in Farmingville, John Rago, Outreach Coordinator for the Supportive Services for Veteran Families program was conducting a homeless count for VFW Post 400.) We were prepared to provide food, clothing, toiletry items, and resources for shelter. We only had one visitor who was already sheltered in emergency housing. Our team spent some time with him and, because our organization operates food pantries, we provided him with provisions. During the course of our discussion, he also inquired and received information on our mental health services.
We were then joined by our fourth team member, Phil Erwin, Outreach Specialist with the SSVF program. With Phil, we came upon more people in the community who were homeless. At the DSS office, a woman informed us that she had filled out a SPOA (Single Point of Access) application, had been approved for housing at Concern for Independent Living, but was awaiting placement. Through tears, she explained how she had physical and mental illnesses but had been discharged from her shelter residence due to an incident involving the theft of her personal items by another resident. Before we said goodbye, we provided her with clothing and essential care items, assuring her she was in the right place for emergency housing placement and, hopefully soon, she would have her own place to call home.
At a local deli, groups of men congregated inside and on the sidewalk, making it difficult to speak with any one person. Eddie, an employee at the deli, told us that two of the men there were homeless, but only one would talk to us, and he refused all offers of assistance.
When we circled back to McDonald’s Theresa approached us and said, “I just want to let you know that I am ending my shift and I had a really good day today. The next time somebody tells me they’re not having a good day I’m going to tell them about mine and about what your organization does so that they can be thankful for what they do have.”
That was so heartwarming to hear. We gave her additional business cards that she could distribute which contained information on our emergency shelter program and additional services we offer though our Suffolk County United Veterans project.
Sometimes how you envision your day does not always turn out as planned. As it turned out, Theresa, who was ending her shift at McDonald’s, was herself a Veteran who was struggling. Her husband has a disability and she rides a bicycle — even in freezing temperatures and snow — to and from work. We were extremely pleased that she accepted help from our food pantry and our SSVF program, which offers supportive services and temporary financial assistance to low-income Veterans.
The icing in the cake: that next day, Greg, our volunteer team member, secured a job at a homeless shelter that we had visited during the Long Island Homeless Count.
It is my firm belief that anyone who participates in a homeless count program leaves a changed person. I know that I am forever humbled and filled with gratitude.
Note: For privacy protection, the names of the people interviewed have been changed.