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Hope House Ministries

At Hope Academy at Little Portion Friary in Mount Sinai, representatives from State Farm pass off keys to a Ford van to Charlie Russo to be used by Hope House Ministries. Photo by Alex Petroski

The private sector stepped up to help the helpers Aug. 3.

Through a program called Recycled Rides, which creates partners between insurance providers and auto-repair companies to repair and donate vehicles to those in need, a Ford E series van was donated to Port Jefferson-based Hope House Ministries during a ceremony held at its Mount Sinai location, Hope Academy at Little Portion Friary Friday. Recycled Rides is an initiative started about 10 years ago by the National Auto Body Council, a not-for-profit organization aimed at improving the image of collision industry professionals. In this case, ProLiner Rescue auto-repair shop in Medford and State Farm teamed up to facilitate the donation.

“We brought [ProLiner Rescue] the van, it was a mess,” said Steven Wisotsky, Metro New York Salvage Unit agent at State Farm.

Wisotsky said the vehicle had been stolen. When it was recovered and ultimately purchased by State Farm, it was missing parts, there was substantial damage to its body, and other mechanical work and a paint job were also needed. The repair shop did all the work free of charge.

Steven Wisotsky of State Farm with Charlie Russo of Hope House Ministries. Photo by Alex Petroski

“It’s phenomenal — we don’t have any federal funding or state funding, so for us, everything that we get is so appreciated,” said Charlie Russo, Hope House Ministry’s board chairman. “To have to go out and buy something like this, we can’t budget for. All of our money goes to direct services. It’s a phenomenal gift from this community, we receive so many gifts from this community. Just their support — emotional support, monetary support — and the amount of volunteers that come from our community, it’s just amazing.”

Russo said the van would be used to transport necessary supplies to and from the organization’s 10 facilities, which are dedicated to serving individuals in crisis on Long Island since 1980. The chairman said the van was much needed, though he mentioned Ramp Motors in Port Jefferson Station has also been generous in supplying Hope House with transportation-related needs in the past.

Brookhaven Town councilmembers, Kevin LaValle (R-Selden) and Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point), were among the elected officials in attendance to commend the companies for their generosity.

Pax Christi Hospitality Center in Port Jefferson has been around for almost 30 years, though its founder said homelessness was an issue in Port Jeff long before that. Photo by Alex Petroski

By Alex Petroski

An Aug. 28 post by a user in a private Facebook group of about 1,300 Port Jefferson Village residents featured a photo of two men sleeping at the Port Jefferson Long Island Rail Road station. Amidst a longer message attached to the image was the phrase: “I’ve had it.”

The post inspired comments from more than a dozen users who began a lengthy discussion about homeowners’ concerns over property values as a result of activity related to homeless people in the area. Some responses included efforts to tackle the issue of homelessness after the main poster asked: “Does anyone know what is being done about this?”

Elected officials, local leaders and data from nonprofit organizations serving the state, Long Island and Suffolk County seem to agree: Efforts exist to reduce the number of undomiciled residents, but the problem is not going away and more needs to be done.

Volunteers at Welcome Friends Soup Kitchen in Port Jefferson prepare a meal for guests. Photo by Alex Petroski

Homelessness has been a topic of conversation in Port Jeff for decades, and Father Frank Pizzarelli, a Port Jeff resident and founder of the nonprofit Hope House Ministries, began addressing the issue in 1980. With 10 facilities, he helps serve groups and people in need. His first endeavor was The Community House in Port Jefferson.

A 30-bed long-term facility, the home on Main Street is still in operation today for at-risk 16- to 21-year-old males in need of a place to live. Almost 28 years ago, Pizzarelli said he opened Pax Christi Hospitality Center on Oakland Avenue after a Vietnam veteran froze to death in winter while living in what he described as a cardboard box village in Port Jefferson.

At least seven people listed as undomiciled by the county police department were arrested on the morning of Oct. 4 for sleeping in tents in the woods behind the Comsewogue Public Library on Terryville Road, according to police.

According to the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit organization established in 1985 that works with government agencies to secure funding and services for homeless people in Suffolk and Nassau counties, 3,937 people on Long Island were classified as homeless as of January 2017. The number includes people in emergency or transitional housing, as well as those who are completely unsheltered, of which there were 64, according to the group’s annual report for 2017.

In context, the number of homeless people living on Long Island hasn’t changed much over the last three LICH yearly tallies. In 2016, New York State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli (D) conducted an audit to examine the issue of homelessness in the state, which reached some discouraging conclusions.

Homelessness is on the decline nationwide, according to the report, though New York was one of 18 states to see an increase in the number of people without a permanent residence between 2007 and 2015. The number rose by 41 percent to more than 88,000 statewide during that span, which was the largest increase of any state in the country. Much of the increase was attributable to New York City, though DiNapoli’s audit stressed homelessness as a state problem and not simply a city problem, saying homelessness is affecting “communities in virtually every corner of the state … on a daily basis.”

‘Hope House Ministry lives and has lived for 38 years because of this community. I find this one of the most extraordinary communities when it comes to compassion and generosity.’

— Frank Pizzarelli

“The homeless problem pre-existed Pax Christi,” Pizzarelli said. The licensed social worker said the idea that his facilities attract the homeless to Port Jeff is a common refrain he’s heard cyclically over the years from people like the Facebook poster, though he said he has found those voices are few and far between and don’t represent the majority of the community.

“Hope House Ministry lives and has lived for 38 years because of this community,” he said. “I find this one of the most extraordinary communities when it comes to compassion and generosity. Yes, there are always people that are super critical and, because of the socioeconomic nature of our community, would prefer certain things not be here. They’re a very small minority from my experience.”

He said he receives no financial support from the government other than reimbursements from the county’s Department of Social Services to barely cover his costs for sheltering people overnight at Pax Christi. His entire budget, which he estimated to be in the ballpark of $5 million annually, is covered by donations and grants. He also said he believes homeless people who commit crimes or contribute to tensions in the Port Jeff community tend not to be the same people who are interested in getting help.

“Uptown is a complicated place,” he said. “The homeless have no fixed address and they also have no voice, so it’s easy to blame them. They’re a part of the issue, but it’s not that simplistic. I don’t think the larger community really realizes that.”

Pizzarelli pointed to insufficient funds from the county and state governments as his and other organization’s biggest obstacle in providing services for those in need. He said mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction, especially to opioids, are at the root of Suffolk County’s homelessness problem. Once people are in treatment for substance addiction or any mental health affliction, he said more transitional housing needs to be made available to get people on the road to recovery.

Pizzarelli said Pax Christi does not admit any persons under the influence of drugs or alcohol, so they occasionally have to turn people away.

“We probably all need to take a firmer stand so [homeless people being aided by services] understand if they’re not going to take care of business — hanging out at the train station is not the answer,” he said. “I agree, people don’t need to be harassed when they’re getting off the train.”

A breakdown by race of Long Island’s nearly 4,000 homeless people, according to the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless. Graphic by TBR News Media

DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville), presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature, in conjunction with the Welfare to Work Commission of the Legislature, arranged a public hearing Oct. 10 to discuss the impact that massive cuts in President Donald Trump’s (R) early budget proposals to funding for human services would have on local residents.

Michael Stoltz, the executive director of Ronkonkoma-based Association for Mental Health and Wellness said before the hearing he thinks the county fails to adequately invest in mental health services.

“We see a proportionate rise and increase in the number of people in our jails who have mental health conditions — untreated and under treated — and among our homeless populations,” he said.

Stoltz was representing one of the 13 agencies slated to speak during the hearing.

“The county and these agencies are facing a crisis of what could be unparalleled and unprecedented proportions,” commission chairman Richard Koubek said before the hearing. “We have watched with dismay and frustration the chronic underfunding of contract agencies that serve Suffolk County’s poor people.”

Suffolk and Nassau counties collectively are considered a Continuum of Care community, which is defined as a community with a unified plan to organize and deliver housing services to meet the needs of people who are homeless. Grants from the CoC are funded through the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is a federal department responsible for more than $10 million in CoC grants obtained each year to aid locals, according to its website. DiNapoli’s report found of the smaller communities with CoC programs, Long Island’s counties had the third largest homeless population in the United States.

Long Island’s relative lack of affordable housing can further complicate the issue, as housing units are priced to rent or own in Brookhaven Town according to HUD guidelines, which are dependent on the area median income of a region. In 2017, Suffolk County’s average household income was $110,800. To qualify to rent an affordable living space, household income must be less than 50 percent of this number, meaning in Suffolk, any family earning less than $55,400 annually has a right to reduced rent. Monthly rent for a three-person home for a family earning less than that, for example, by law cannot exceed $1,200.

Pax Christi Hospitality Center in Port Jefferson has been around for almost 30 years, though its founder said homelessness was an issue in Port Jeff long before that. Photo by Alex Petroski

Because of the relatively high average income in Suffolk, “affordable” rent is a term that most likely wouldn’t apply to someone sleeping on the street or residing in a homeless shelter. According to Pizzarelli and Brookhaven Housing and Human Services Commissioner Alison Karppi, there’s far less affordable housing available in the town and the county as a whole than demand would dictate.

“It is estimated that 42,500 renters spend half or more of their income on household costs,” Gregory said prior to the Oct. 10 hearing. “That startling figure emphasizes the need for cheaper housing our working families and young people can afford. We are here today to send a message that we simply can’t afford this budget.”

Last week Brookhaven Town announced a new initiative to acquire vacant “zombie” homes and make them available for veterans and first-time homebuyers at reduced costs as a way to expand the availability of affordable housing in the town. Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) estimated there are as many as 2,000 vacant homes in the town with many in a salvageable state.

Port Jeff has another resource in its backyard to help those in need, which reiterates Pizzarelli’s sentiment that on the whole, it is a compassionate community.

Welcome Friends Soup Kitchen in Port Jeff Village has been serving people in need, homeless or otherwise, in the area for 28 years. The group also has two locations in Port Jefferson Station comprised of about 200 volunteers and functions entirely on donations of money and food, oftentimes from a local Trader Joe’s. Five days a week, the soup kitchen opens its doors to serve as many as 100 guests free of charge each night. Unlike Pax Christi, Welcome Friends never turns away guests due to intoxication. The volunteers prevent entry to those who could be a danger to other guests, but even in those instances the person is sent away with a to-go meal, always well balanced and fresh. Multiple courses are available but served once a day Sunday to Wednesday and also on Friday.

Lorraine Kutzing, a longtime coordinator at the soup kitchen, said the organization’s sole focus is having as many meals as possible prepared each day, and hopes that she and others like Pizzarelli can continue to try to fix the problem highlighted by community members like those in the Facebook group.

“I think the need has always been there,” she said. “I don’t think that has changed that much.”

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Suffolk County’s Department of Health encourages residents to take advantage of Narcan training classes at Comsewogue High School, 565 Bicycle Path, Port Jefferson Station on March 27 at 7 p.m. and Longwood Middle School, 41 Yaphank Middle Island Road, Middle Island on March 29 at 7 p.m. The training will enable participants to recognize an opioid overdose, administer intranasal Narcan and take additional steps until EMS arrives. Participants will receive a certificate of completion and an emergency resuscitation kit that includes nasal Narcan. For more information, call 631-852-6109.

Can’t make it on those dates? Hope House Ministries will host a free Narcan Training Workshop on Thursday, March 30 from 10 to 11:30 a.m. at its Human Service Center, 1313 Main St., Port Jefferson in the Sister Aimee Room. Participants will learn the essentials of opioid overdose prevention and receive certification as Trained Overdose Responders as well as an overdose response kit that includes naloxone (Narcan). For more information or to register, please call 631-928-2377 or 631-473-0553.

Little Portion Friary is on Old Post Road in Mount Sinai. Photo by Giselle Barkley

After 35 years, Hope House Ministries is reuniting with its roots.

Earlier this year, in light of financial difficulties and a lack of manpower, the Franciscan Brothers of the Little Portion Friary on Old Post Road in Mount Sinai announced their building was closing. But this past spring, Father Francis Pizzarelli approached the brothers about acquiring part of the property, and now it can still have a future.

According to Pizzarelli, his Port Jefferson-based nonprofit Hope House Ministries began at the Little Portion Friary location, when it rented the friary’s guesthouse. The group has since grown, adding local properties such as the Pax Christi Hospitality Center on Oakland Avenue in Port Jefferson, where it shelters homeless men. Now it will return to where it all started.

Pizzarelli said the brothers were going to sell the 44-acre property to a developer who was going to build condominiums. Instead, Hope House will rent four acres of the lot — with the rent going toward the land’s purchase price — while the remaining 40 acres will go to Suffolk County. Hope House will change the facility’s name to Hope Academy at Little Portion Friary and use the building to further assist and support the people who are battling addiction.

With Long Island facing heroin addiction in particular as a widespread problem, Pizzarelli said he didn’t have enough space to help, so he first purchased an apartment house in Port Jefferson to accommodate those individuals brought in for assistance.

“What the friary is going to provide for me is greater space,” Pizzarelli said.

The young men who currently reside at the apartment house will be moved to the friary, and the additional space will give them more room to reflect and help further their treatment, the priest said.

The building required basic maintenance and renovations, including repainting the bedrooms, replacing carpets and cleaning the facility.

“When the brothers realized they had to leave, they weren’t going to spend money on a building that might have been demolished,” Pizzarelli said.

Hope House began renovating the building in September. Residents like Ann Moran of Sound Beach described the friary as a “little known secret” in the Mount Sinai area. She was pleased about the friary’s new future, saying, “I’m delighted that Hope House is taking it over and the [friary] won’t be closing.”

Pizzarelli said his neighbors were also thrilled that Hope House was preserving the friary’s nearly eight and a half decades of service to the community.

Despite the changes, one local tradition will remain — the bakery is and will still be open for business. For many years, the brothers were known locally for baking bread and have passed the baton to Hope House, which has been selling bread since October.

Pizzarelli said he kept the bakery “not so much to make money, but to basically honor the brothers and their 86 years.”

The labyrinth and chapel will also be available for community members to use.

According to the Little Portion Friary website, the friary helped serve the community through “prayer, study and work.” The brothers of the friary occasionally took in homeless people or others who simply needed a safe place to go.

The Franciscan brothers are currently in San Francisco and were not available for comment, but Pizzarelli said the brothers were also pleased to know the friary would be used for a good cause.

“The Franciscan brothers have always been supportive of this ministry and are grateful that [the] ministry will continue to give life to this holy ground.”

Community members take to the court in Hoops for Hope tribute

Local friends and community members come out to play 3 on 3 basketball in support of, and to pay respects to, Jake Engel during the Hoops for Hope fundraiser. Photo by Giselle Barkley

Four years ago, Jake Engel of Miller Place lived in Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson. It’s to that same ministry that the Engel family is donating the proceeds from their first Jake Engel Hoops for Hope fundraiser on Tuesday, which they want to make an annual event.

Last Tuesday night into Wednesday morning, 22-year-old Engel died of a heroin overdose. Engel was born on July 18, 1993. Engel’s wake was on Friday at the O.B. Davis Funeral Home in Miller Place. The mass took place on Saturday at Saint Louis De Montfort church in Sound Beach.

But the Engel family wanted to do one more thing to remember their loved one. After the funeral, Engel’s younger brother, Patrick, wanted to find a way to remember his brother and raise money for a good cause.

Pat Engel dribbles the ball at the Jake Engel Hoops for Hope fundraiser. Photo by Giselle Barkley
Pat Engel dribbles the ball at the Jake Engel Hoops for Hope fundraiser. Photo by Giselle Barkley

“All the proceeds are going to Hope House … He lived there for about two years and it’s a great program,” Pat Engel said. “He made a lot of friends; [it was] probably the best years of his life.”

According to its website, Hope House Ministries aims to “provide compassionate, comprehensive and competent care for the poor, the marginal and the wounded among us.”

According to family friend Lisa Nordin, of Miller Place, various people in need seek shelter at Hope House. While the organization helps people in times of need, the community also wanted to band together in a time of need.

“After this tragedy, we just felt like, as a community, we have to get together and fight against drugs and drug dealers,” Nordin said.

About 15 small, self-appointed teams donated money to participate in this event, where they played half-court basketball at the basketball court at Cedar Beach in Mount Sinai.

Brian Sztabnik was one of the many people who attended and participated in the Engel’s Hoops for Hope.

Sztabnik and several others said Engel “loved coming to the beach and he loved playing basketball.”

“They figured might as well put the two things together and have a benefit, and bring the community together, raise some money and celebrate his life,” he said.

Pat Engel said his older brother enjoyed the beach, adding that he was a clammer and spent 8 to 12 hours at the beach, daily.

Countless community members gathered to donate money and participate in the event. Many of them knew Jake Engel in high school. With their help, Hoops for Hope raised more than $5,000 for Hope House Ministries.

Pat Engel thought the event had a good turnout, especially considering it was planned in three days. He also thought this new, annual event was a good way to raise money and honor his brother.

“Jake, he had a wonderful sense of humor,” Engel said. “He could light up the room with his smile. He cared about everyone that cared about him. He loved his family, and his family loved him.”

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By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

May and June are the months of the year when we celebrate our mothers, our fathers and our graduates. It is a time of year to pause in the midst of all the chaos, despite a world filled with hate and discrimination.

So often I have filled this space with stories of those who have been suffering. These stories have challenged me to stay the course, helping others for over 30 years to reclaim their lives.

It is no secret that our county is being ravaged by the reckless use of heroin. What is equally frustrating is the growing denial among so many people about the seriousness of this epidemic health crisis.  Every quarter of our community is showing resistance, from the government, to our schools and most painfully from our parents.

How many young adults have to lose their lives before people stand up and shout “no more!” Are you willing to commit yourself to positive action, even if it makes you uncomfortable? Every parent’s nightmare is burying a child. To lose a child because of reckless decision making and behavior is even more tragic.

There are not enough easily accessible beds for those who seek long-term treatment. Opiate addiction cannot be effectively treated with a 28-day model. Too many insurance companies will only pay for residential care, if one fails at outpatient treatment. If one knows anything about opiate addiction, one knows that approach is a sure death sentence.

In our own community, too many have lost their lives while doing outpatient treatment. The few residential programs that are accessible in our community are short-term at best — and that is if insurance will cover it. Too many health care plans will only pay for five or six days — maybe 12 days max! How do you focus on recovery if you think you might be homeless in a few days  — starting all over again?

Despite these horror stories, people are getting better, entering recovery and learning how to live productive lives.

A story of hope:

TJ is a young man who was born into privilege. His parents are well educated and successful, materially speaking. While he was in high school, he developed a serious opiate addiction and was able to effectively hide it from his parents and his teachers. He was out of control and almost died on numerous occasions.

TJ is a smart, articulate, engaging and talented young man. When he was confronted about his addiction and his out-of-control behavior, he denied he had a problem and refused any kind of treatment. Only when he was in the bowels of dysfunction and depression did he finally agree to treatment. He agreed to long-term treatment and signed a contract for a year to 18 months.

It was not an easy road for TJ, but today he has four years of healthy recovery.He recently graduated from a local liberal arts college and will begin Fordham University’s Graduate School of Social Service, pursing a master’s degree in clinical social work so he can help others not walk the road that almost cost him his life.

He will be the first to admit that he is where he is today because his parents stopped enabling and rescuing him. Instead, they empowered him to reclaim his life and walk the road less traveled and live!

Fr. Pizzarelli is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

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