Please welcome Ruth McDade, Director of Development at the Association for Mental Health and Wellness, as a returning guest blogger. Her story below motivates us to continue the important work we do every day. We are grateful to her team that included Joanne Massimo, Greg Dutcher, and Scott Bradley. ~ Michael Stoltz
Recently, a team of four representatives from the Association for Mental Health and Wellness/Suffolk County United Veterans (SCUV) – volunteer Greg Dutcher, board member Scott Bradley, and staffers Joanne Massimo and Ruth McDade – participated in the 2017 “Point-in-Time Homeless Count.” Each year, the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless (LICH) conducts the count to estimate the sheltered and unsheltered homeless population and project service needs and resources.
Our team was assigned to Suffolk’s East End. Like other teams across Long Island, our charge was to locate, count, and engage homeless people about their living situation and their needs and – if they agreed – accept assistance locating shelter for the night. LICH provided us with waterproof blankets, clothing, personal care items, food, and a list of housing resources.
We began our search at 6:00pm driving along the Tanger Outlet, Wal-Mart, and going into the McDonald’s and Starbuck’s at the Tanger food court. Team members engaged store managers, providing them with our cell numbers if they saw someone needing assistance.
A 20-year Veteran, “Dutch” is highly driven for the task as he himself was homeless 15 years ago when health problems led him to lose nearly everything he owned. From his service with the Helping Hands of the East End Food Pantry at Synergy Center, Dutch is very familiar with the Riverhead area homeless “hangouts.” That evening, he led our team to a laundromat, the back halls of a library, and streets where Maureen’s Haven just completed its nightly homeless outreach.
For a while, other than one woman sitting alone with a number of possessions alongside her, it seemed that the warm winter night would leave us with few engagements. That changed when we entered the local McDonald’s.
Sitting among a group was Vernon, who warmly greeted us. I met Vernon – at the time homeless and living in his car – at last year’s Kick Stands Up event where he was a volunteer food prep/server. Since then, we helped him find permanent housing and secure employment. Vernon happily introduced us to the remaining people while Scott Bradley purchased hot meals for each person who accepted his generous offer.
We met some other incredible people that day who were deeply grateful for our outreach:
- Frank, 22, lives in his car despite working full-time. He is estranged from his family but is with his friend, Sam, 23, also homeless. They met while receiving shelter services at Maureen’s Haven. Sam is undocumented and has been homeless for over a year and is working with an attorney to gain citizenship. Sadly, Sam declined our offer and said he would sleep in the car with Frank but would be open to assistance from LICH to help him find permanent housing. They would have to connect with him at McDonald’s as he has no other means of contact.
- Tom and Lisa are a couple who occasionally sleep in the waiting room of a local hospital where she receives treatment for chronic illnesses. Lisa shared some intimate and traumatic events she had experienced; Tom provided very compassionate support and spoke of his mental health and substance abuse struggles over the past few years. With the help of DSS, we convinced them to return to a shelter with the goal for them to be placed together in the near future.
- Sylvia, 52, struggles with alcohol abuse. She had been sleeping on a porch in an abandoned building for 9 months after separating from her husband. Her alcohol abuse compromised the continuity of benefits she critically needs to better manage her life. She refused DSS assistance since the only opportunity available was 45-miles away. However, Sylvia accepted help from our Health Home Care Management program to get assistance for her drinking and other healthcare and social service needs. Like the others, she accepted our offer of clothing, food, personal care items, and a waterproof blanket. I felt helpless as I watched her walk out of McDonald’s and into the night all alone.
- Larry, 50, has mental health challenges and has been homeless for the past year and a half since the house where he lived went into foreclosure. Since becoming homeless he has lost all benefits and is without needed medication. Larry worked as a mason in his youth, then went into the military, but was not able to complete his service though he did receive an honorable discharge. Larry heartily accepted a referral to our SCUV Vets Place shelter with help from Suffolk DSS. Bill Doane, the shelter’s night manager, welcomed Larry, who not only got a clean bed, food, clothing, and lots of peer and professional support, but will also receive mental health services and care management.
I would be remiss if I didn’t give a huge “shout out” to Nora, a kind and patient DSS Emergency Services staff member, who made multiple calls over two hours for housing and transportation for our new clients; and to our own Bill Doane, who was well-prepared to receive any homeless Veteran we brought him that evening.
I look forward to doing “The Count” each year as it reminds me why I do this work. I feel honored to work alongside such a committed team who, like me, were amazed by the strength of people who are going through such an intensely difficult time in their lives. Their profound and sincere gratitude, for me – some with tears – was best reflected by Joanne: “I meet homeless folks all the time. What I learn is that each person deeply appreciates the help. It never gets old. They appreciate that someone looks at them and listens. I also feel the torture they go through and can understand why they sometimes self-medicate.”
Our terrific team shared fist bumps at night’s end for a sense of accomplishment that evening. Said Scott Bradley, “We had to complete the mission.” Spoken like the true Veteran that he is.