As the wind and snow pummeled the East End Tuesday morning, homeless individuals who might normally have spent the night seeking shelter from the storm were warm and safe after a hot dinner and a night spent watching a movie with friends.
The homeless spent Monday evening at Westhampton Presbyterian Church, one of the many East End houses of worship that participate in Maureen's Haven, a program that provides food and shelter during the cold winter months under the auspices of Riverhead's Peconic Community Council. Locally, First Presbyterian Church of Southampton hosts.
But, despite the cold temperatures and snow on the ground, the homeless have only until the end of March to find respite at those churches that participate in Maureen's Haven — the program winds down on April 1 until next fall.
During the summer months, the homeless seek shelter wherever they can, said Tracey Lutz, the executive director of the Maureen's Haven homeless outreach program.
Some pitch tents in the woods. Others, she said, utilize Suffolk County's emergency housing system or find shelter through seasonal employers.
Despite the fact the Maureen's Haven program will end for the season soon, services for the homeless will still be available at Peconic Community Council's new day center in Riverhead.
"We are open year-round for individuals in need of assistance in obtaining housing or who want respite during the day," Lutz said. "We offer case management services on a limited basis and some programming such as computer skills, job search and recovery groups."
In addition, transportation will be provided for the homeless on Tuesday evenings to the Southold Presbyterian Church, where dinner will be served and showers available.
Reflecting on the past season, Lutz recalled some of the stories and faces of the homeless guests that have moved her. "One is an 18-year-old released from foster care and into homelessness," she said. "He is currently housed and finishing his high school diploma. He hopes to join the military afterward. He comes in to see me regularly and it amazes me how resilient he is, in the face of such trials in his young life."
Another elderly man, Lutz said, had spent the majority of his life in varied psychiatric placements. "He wandered away from his residence and ended up at Maureen's Haven," she said. "The supervisors at the residence filed a missing persons report, but it was with Suffolk County Police so nobody was looking for him in Riverhead or farther east."
Lutz said it soon became evident that the man needed a higher level of care and called adult protective services; he was soon able to return to his initial residence.
The fall and winter months were particularly challenging, Lutz said — with Superstorm Sandy ravaging the area only days before Maureen's Haven began operating for the season on Nov. 1 and a blizzard putting homeless guests at even greater risk out in the elements.
"We had quite a few guests that fell victim to Sandy's wrath," Lutz said. "One had only moved into a basement apartment in Quogue two weeks prior to the storm and lost everything he owned. He did not have any resources to replace his belongings or relocate. He stayed with us for a short time and eventually moved in with family until he can save enough money to obtain his own place."
Peconic Community Council and Maureen's Haven, Lutz said, received many referrals from Social Services. "They ran out of space partly due to Sandy, but also due to a overburdened system with a lack of shelters. Clearly, the system needs redesigning," she said.
After Hurricane Sandy ravaged the area, the homeless who had gathered at Peconic Community Council's Riverhead office shared their experiences with Patch.
James, a homeless man who asked that his last name not be given, rode out the storm at an emergency shelter set up at Riverhead High School.
Speaking of his deepest fears when faced with Hurricane Sandy, James turned somber. "I'm homeless. I live in the woods of Riverhead. I thought about trees, falling on me — and I'm in a tent."
And so, James said, he left his tent and his possessions behind and found shelter at the high school. "I don't want that to be my legacy," he said. "I don't want to be just some homeless person that died in the woods."
James added that he was grateful that Maureen's Haven was set to start on Nov. 1, and that he could find shelter from the brutal elements.
In February, when a volunteers from Maureen's Haven banded together to provide the homeless with shelter from the storm.
"We have the most phenomenal volunteers," Lutz said. "Guests stayed at the Northville Grange Hall in Riverhead, thanks to First Parish Church, and Christ Our Savior Lutheran Church in Hampton Bays from Friday at 4 p.m. until 7 a.m. Sunday morning."
Maureen's Haven, over the 2012-2013 season, served 307 homeless individuals. "All of them spent at least one night at some point during the season," Lutz said.
The program sheltered 50 men and women per night for most of the season and currently, the number of guests per night ranges from high 30s to high 40s, she added.
Across the East End, 15 faith congregations were utilized as shelter locations, with approximately 35 supporting congregations and community groups assisting the effort such as Kiwanis, Rotary, the Lions Club, and Knights of Columbus.
Supporting groups, Lutz said, either host one night per month at various locations, provide extra sleeping quarters, prepare meals, or provide financial assistance to the host congregations.
Shelters are located as far east as Greenport and East Hampton, west to Westhampton Beach, and south to Hampton Bays.
In addition, the John's Place program hosts adults who are homeless on the North and South forks on Thursdays in Mattituck and Tuesday nights at St. Agnes R.C. Church in Greenport throughout the winter.
A total of 1,500 Maureen's Haven volunteers came together during 2012-2013 to make the program possible for the East End's homeless, Lutz said.
Over the past season, Lutz said the focus was on obtaining housing placement specific to individual needs — Peconic Community Council successfully placed approximately 30 individuals in sober housing, supportive mental health housing, skilled health care facilities and single rooms, Lutz said.
"Many of the 307 individuals we served were with us for a very short period and obtained alternative housing on their own. Several re-located out of state. A few are now guests of the Suffolk County Correctional Facility. We also worked with quite a few that were displaced from Sandy and we helped them obtain services through various relief organizations," Lutz said.