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Annual Homeless Count

January 23, 2013
Pictured left to right: Joanne Massimo, Program Director, Suffolk County United Veterans; and Ruth McDade, Director of Development, Clubhouse of Suffolk and Suffolk County United Veterans

Submitted by Ruth McDade, our Director of Development:

On a cold and blustery January 23rd morning when the temperature outside was 19° but felt like 8° with the wind chill, Joanne Massimo from Suffolk County United Veterans and I headed out to take part in the Annual Homeless Count.

The nation-wide one day Count is mandated by HUD (Housing and Urban Development) and is coordinated locally by the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless Continuum of Care, which recruits a cadre of volunteers to go out and document the homeless population across Long Island. This process helps to measure Long Island area's progress in addressing homelessness, strategize for the future, and ultimately, raise funding to combat homelessness.

Joanne and I began our day a little after 10am, thinking with the bitter cold, we would not find any visible homeless people. Rather, they would have found refuge in the local shelters and avoid the intense cold. We were wrong.

Within two minutes of arriving at the Ronkonkoma Railroad Station, we came upon a woman dressed in a large puffy winter jacket and ski cap standing outside by the ticket area. What drew us to her was her face; it appeared she had not bathed for some time. Walking closer, Joanne realized she had met this woman over a year ago at the first annual Chili Cook-Off, hosted by us, Clubhouse of Suffolk. The woman, Joanne recalled, was not a client (known as a member) of Clubhouse, had lent Joanne bungee cords to secure their chili tent to the ground. We offered the woman a MRE (Meal, Ready to Eat) containing food and hand warmers donated by the Veterans Administration, which she graciously accepted. Joanne reintroduced herself, we all shook hands, and then we asked Sue (not her real name), if we could buy her a cup of coffee and ask her some questions. Sue agreed and the three of us went into Dunkin' Donuts.

At the counter, Sue knew exactly how she wanted her coffee, a blend of two flavors with milk and sugar. We all sat down and Joanne and I explained our purpose. Sue's finger nails were caked in dirt, but she remained friendly and was agreeable to answering questions. She described how now at age 45, she had been homeless for seven years. Sue had built herself a "house" in the woods, which she shared with two other people. Sue denied having a psychological or physical illness, or that she drank alcohol or used drugs, but did say how she was saving her monthly checks (source unknown) for another place to live. We thanked her, handed out resources for shelter and urged her to use Charlotte's Table, one of Clubhouse's food pantries, which was just down the road and open today, and left her there inside Dunkin' Donuts.

Joanne and I returned to the car and decided to drive along the woods by the train station. We pulled over upon seeing footprints in the snow and waited. Again, with a matter of minutes, an unshaven man with faded grey pants came walking along the roadside towards us. As the man approached we exited the car, greeting hello and offering food and supplies. The man stopped, and agreed to accept a MRE and personal care items, but declined a scarf, hand made by students at the local Duffield Elementary School (maybe because the scarves were all brightly colored and would attract attention). The man, who told us his name is Kenneth, informed us he is a U.S. military Veteran who had been homeless for one month. He told us he is currently living in the woods but has at times, slept on the outdoor concrete. Joanne offered Kenneth emergency shelter at The Vets Place but Kenneth politely declined, saying only "I'm stubborn sometimes." It was a difficult moment as Kenneth thanked us again while becoming tearful. His words were slightly slurred. We drove away and left Kenneth alone, walking down the road, to where?

Joanne and I decided to drive around looking for any encampments hidden in the woods. Within minutes, Joanne noticed a movement in the woods. We stopped and got out of the car and began entering the wooded area, coming upon an open air enclosed structure with a small wooden building within its walls. We walked a little closer repeatedly calling out, "Hello, we have food and blankets to give you," but there was no reply. Suddenly, a large dog came running out of the structure heading directly towards us. I found it funny in some odd kind of way, as the dogs tail was wagging and I petted her head. The dog then headed back "home" and we walked away, giving whoever lived there not a thing.

We were planning on meeting some other volunteers in Brentwood so we then headed west to meet at the library. Joanne and I walked in and noticed an unshaven, poorly dressed man sitting beside the fireplace, surrounded by an assortment of small bags. We approached the man, with noticeable body odor, and asked if we could give him some food. The man stood up while responding "yes" and together we began to walk to the car where we left our food and supplies. I stopped and asked the man about the bags he was leaving behind and was told not to worry. I noticed there were other people sitting in chairs around the fireplace, one who appeared to be sleeping and another who avoided all eye contact.

The man identified himself as Gary, a 62 year old thin, frail looking man who had been hit by a car while riding his bike. It had happened right after the tragic events of nine eleven. Gary walked with a noticeable broken gait, telling us he had been a laborer but with slipped and bulging disks in his back, he was unable to work and had been homeless ever since his accident. On one occasion he had to be hospitalized for two weeks due to a bacterial infection. Joanne and I gave Gary a MRE but he declined a blanket, informing us he used two sleeping bags to sleep in the woods each night. Joanne told Gary about the River of Life Church, which operated a program called, "Almost Home." Three nights each week, the church van stops at three different locations in Western Suffolk, picking up people who are drug/alcohol free and providing them a cooked meal and a warm place to sleep. Luckily, one of the locations was right down the street from the library, and Gary said he would take advantage of the services. We then wished Gary all the best and said our goodbyes.

We then met up with Migali and Vivian from the River of Life Church, who were also conducting the homeless count. It was decided Joanne and I should split up and pair with the women from the church, as this was their area and both spoke fluent Spanish. I went with Migali, who drove us all over Brentwood showing me all the known homeless locations. We stopped at the Brentwood train station, but all we saw were homeless cats, obviously tame. Migali told me people fed the cats, but it made me sad to see the poor creatures outside in the bitter cold.

Migali and I went to the shopping center next to Ross Park. There, hidden by a recycle bin in front of the Compare Foods store was a man seated on a chair with an open can of beer. Migali approached him, inviting him to the church. The man, who said his name was David and was 30 years old, declined all offers of help. Migali and I went into the Laundromat where she talked to another young man who told her in Spanish there was a homeless woman who begged for money each day at the shopping center, and become angry if people would not oblige her. Migali and I never found the woman that day. Another two men standing on the corner, that Migali spoke to were angry about matters unrelated to homelessness, they were invited to come to the church. Everyone Migali met with that day spoke Spanish and wherever the homeless people were that day, we could not find them. Joanne and Vivian did not find anyone either.

After Joanne and I left Brentwood, we drove back to the Ronkonkoma train station. There we met up again with Sue and Kenneth (who had a beer in his hand) along with Donald, who told us he had been "kicked out of his girlfriends Section 8" housing and that he was currently living in his car with his three small dogs. Donald was seeking help, and soon. He told us how he was in need of medication for his bipolar disorder and needed to be hospitalized for a couple of days. He added he had a sleep disorder and had a history of drug abuse. The problem was, he needed a place for his dogs while he was in the hospital but had nowhere to take them. I gave Donald my card and asked him to call me; maybe I could do something to help Donald, and his dogs. Later that day, Joanne and I drove around the Ronkonkoma area, visiting Laundromats and shopping areas, but there was no one about.

Notes: Names have been changed to protect privacy. Donald did, in fact, contact Ruth and Joanne and asked for their help to go to a hospital on the condition of finding temporary care for his dogs.