On the coldest nights of the year, many begin their evening at the Riverhead Train Station, where they line up to be frisked for weapons, drugs and alcohol. Some cradle their few personal belongings, mostly clothing piled into either duffle bags or suitcases, while hoping to secure a seat on a white van that will take them someplace warm for the night, and where there is a hot meal—for some the only meal they will eat all day—waiting for them.
They are members of the East End’s homeless population, and they are growing in number.
Many of the estimated 500 homeless people living in the five East End towns sleep outdoors. But on those nights when the temperature dips down into the single digits, exposure to the elements could result in hypothermia or, in more severe cases, death. That is where Maureen’s Haven steps in.
Founded in 2001, the non-profit and nondenominational organization was created to provide the less fortunate with temporary shelter from the cold. Today, Maureen’s Haven, which operates on a $4,500 weekly budget that is primarily funded through donations, assists more than 100 people from November 1 until April 1 each year, providing them with shelter and warm meals.
Maureen’s Haven rotates where the homeless stay on a daily basis during the fall and winter months, and many different churches on the East End open their houses of worship to the program. In Southampton Town, the East Quogue United Methodist Church, Westhampton Presbyterian Church in Quiogue, Saint Mary’s Episcopal Church in Hampton Bays, the First Presbyterian Church of Southampton and the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Quiogue all accommodate the program’s “guests,” as they are called by program organizers and volunteers, on different weeknights. Eight additional churches on the North Fork also participate in the program, according to organizers.
Volunteers provide the homeless with a hot meal, a cot for the night, breakfast the next morning, and a bag lunch. Some even spend the night with those receiving help to look over the guests and offer them advice. The program offers assistance to a variety of people, from all different age brackets, races and backgrounds.
“It’s been a lifesaver for me,” said Jack Guarneri, who participated in the program at Westhampton Presbyterian Church in Quiogue one recent Monday.
Mr. Guarneri, who has lived in New Jersey and across Long Island, credits his longtime friend Bill, who is a drug and alcohol screener for Maureen’s Haven and declined to give his last name, for alerting him about the program.
“I lost perspective on the world,” Mr. Guarneri said. “Bill pulled me out.”
Mr. Guarneri started using Maureen’s Haven after he lost his Medicaid benefits 18 months ago and after a lengthy battle with alcoholism. He was told that he was not eligible for Medicaid because he has money from his pension for the many years he worked in higher education. Mr. Guarneri, who has not had an alcoholic drink in five months, explained that he cannot access that money for another seven years, when he turns 65.
“I kept saying, ‘That money may as well be on the moon,’” he said.
Though he holds a master’s degree from Long Island University and has more than 20 years of experience working as a counselor and transcript evaluator, Mr. Guarneri has not worked since August 2007. He said he hopes to find employment in the near future.
“I hope to get back to work in a helping profession, where I can make a contribution to the greater good,” he said.
Others also praised the program.
“They give you strength and hope,” said one female participant, a South American immigrant in her late fifties who declined to give her name and who has used the program, on and off, for the past year. “You always find a smile.”
She explained that she lost her job in 2007 and has not found employment since. Noting that she holds advanced degrees in business, she said she is overqualified for many positions and refuses to take a job doing menial labor. “It’s very difficult to find a job,” she said. “For me it is almost impossible.”
The woman added that she has not reached out to relatives because she worries how they will view her situation. “It’s something I keep secret,” she said of being homeless. She hopes to find permanent housing and open her own business one day. “I am not happy with myself staying here,” she said.
Kay Kidde of Quiogue, the founder of Maureen’s Haven, explained that many of the program’s participants are just like Mr. Guarneri and the woman from South America—ordinary people who, through some misfortune, fell on hard times. She added that she started the program because of the lack of alternatives to help the East End’s homeless population. “I realized they were being ill-treated,” Ms. Kidde said.
Ms. Kidde noted that the organization has run into some roadblocks in the past because, in some cases, some residents feel uneasy about homeless people being housed in their neighborhoods. “People get scared,” she said. “Unless they come and they have dinner here.”
Despite a few stumbling blocks, including suspending service at the First Presbyterian Church of Southampton for three months in late 2007 following public protest, Ms. Kidde touted the success of the organization over the past seven years. “We have 1,200 volunteers, we have a wonderful board,” she said. “All we need is money.”
She added that the organization ultimately seeks to help people get back on their feet and empower them to find a way to support themselves through education, as well as psychological and career counseling.
“The final goal is to have a low-cost apartment and a life of real dignity,” Ms. Kidde said. “We really help people to help themselves.”
Though based out of the Peconic Community Council’s Riverhead office, the Maureen’s Haven program is independently run and held at a different East End church each night. Lisa Finn of Remsenburg and Maria Moore of Westhampton Beach coordinate the program at the Westhampton Presbyterian Church, which is located on Old Meetinghouse Road. Their church provides shelter for the homeless every Monday night for five months.
“For some of these people, this is the only home they have,” Ms. Finn said.
Ms. Finn and Ms. Moore noted that those who volunteer with Maureen’s Haven, and work with the homeless on a daily or weekly basis, often redefine their own perceptions of the less fortunate. “Everybody has misconceptions about homeless people,” said Ms. Finn, noting that most are regular people who have experienced some form of misfortune.
Ms. Moore added that though some volunteers might be apprehensive at first, they usually find the experience emotionally rewarding. “They say they are so glad [to have done this],” she said.
According to Denis Yuen, the program director of Maureen’s Haven, the organization provided food and shelter for 118 people from November 1, 2007 until April 1, 2008. As of last week, the organization has already served 127 individuals since November 1, 2008, and organizers are expecting that number to climb considering the state of the economy.
Mr. Yuen also pointed to a lack of affordable housing on the East End and the high unemployment rate to explain the increase in the number of people seeking assistance from Maureen’s Haven.
The number of people given shelter on any given night has also increased. On a busy night last year, volunteers assisted an estimated 35 people a night. This year, volunteers have had to provide food and shelter for up to 55 guests at one time, according to Mr. Yuen. Due to the spike, some houses of worship have since instituted caps on the number of people that they can accommodate on any one night.
To ensure that no one is left out in the cold, the First Parish Church in Aquebogue, another parish that participates in the program, can usually house the overflow within a few hours notice, Mr. Yuen said. He added that guests will often have dinner at the original location while volunteers set up the beds at First Parish Church. “The host churches have set limits, but they’re willing to feed everyone,” he said.
Those staying at the shelters are usually given a bus ticket the next morning to take them where they need to go. On Sundays, when Suffolk County Transit buses do not run, they take taxis. Maureen’s Haven, which is funded through donations and some grants, pays their transportation costs.
“The increase in the population has driven up the transportation budget,” Mr. Yuen said. He also pointed to increases in food prices and other supplies, which the volunteers usually absorb. “Volunteers have to dig deeper into their own pockets,” he said.
Mr. Yuen credits the thousands of people on the East End who have pitched in over the years to make beds, cook meals and stay overnight to make sure no one has to sleep in the cold for much of the success of Maureen’s Haven. “The program would not be the success it is if it were not for the dedicated volunteers,” he said.
Those who wish to make a donation, or are interested in volunteering with Maureen’s Haven, can contact Mr. Yuen at 727-7973.