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. ~ Michael Stoltz
To help identify and address the issue of homelessness on Long Island, Joanne Massimo, Program Director for Suffolk County United Veterans, and I participate each year in the “Point in Time Count.” This annual event is overseen by the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless, which is designated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to oversee the regional strategy for ending homelessness. To put the issue of homelessness into perspective, on this day in 2016 the number of homeless people in Suffolk and Nassau counties was 3,937.
This year it was an unusually warm January evening in eastern Suffolk County. Our first stop was a wooded area with a tent barely visible in the distance. Armed with MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) and a sleeping bag along with supplies of additional food, personal care items, and a list of housing resources courtesy of the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless, we called out to announce our presence. Despite our efforts, nobody responded to our offer of assistance. We could only leave a card nearby with a list of housing resources.
Our next stop was a local laundromat. I spoke with the woman behind the counter who informed me there are many homeless people who enter seeking refuge. She said she felt bad for them but after a period of time she has to tell them to leave. When I handed her a card with a list of housing resources, she smiled and thanked me for helping her.
Driving along a main road, Joanne and I spotted a man bundled up in layers of clothes with a shopping cart depositing collected bottles and cans inside a market. When he exited, we asked to speak with him, explaining we were here to help people who were homeless. Even though he was visibly unclean and in need of a shower, the man refused assistance and walked away from us while pushing his shopping cart.
Joanne and I decided to drive to a shack situated at a church set back in the woods. Before we approached the shack, we spoke with a man who shared with us his own story of homelessness, and even though he had since secured housing, he asked us what would happen if his food stamp benefits were to run out in March with the current government shutdown. Our agency operates three food pantries, but it served as a reminder that homelessness can happen to anyone, even to those who do currently receive food stamp benefits. Joanne and I said goodbye to the man and walked on to the shack and announced our presence and offer of assistance. But again, there was no response. So, we once again left a list of housing resources along with supplies of MREs, food, and personal care items.
Our final stop was a Burger King. Joanne and I entered and explained to the woman working behind the counter why we were there. The woman replied there were many homeless people who congregated in the back area of the fast food restaurant. She also told us a story of a woman who once lived in a nearby apartment that had lost her housing and now can be seen walking along the road pushing a shopping cart. We decided to order some food and wait, but again, a homeless person was not to be found.
As a provider of emergency housing – our agency operates The Vets Place shelter in Yaphank – we know firsthand that homelessness does indeed exist here on Long Island. If more of those on the front lines who routinely encountered people experiencing homelessness had housing resources to distribute, we just might see people exchanging the woods, shacks, and shopping carts, for a safe, permanent place to live.