By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli
More than 30 years ago on a very cold January morning, a Vietnam vet came looking for me. He found me at the counseling center on High Street in Port Jefferson Village. He was shaking and could hardly speak. He told me that one of his buddies, who was also a Vietnam vet, had died. He had frozen to death along the railroad tracks.
He begged me to go with him. So we walked along the railroad tracks on the south side toward Stony Brook. About 1/4 of a mile down in the woods was a box village of mostly Vietnam vets. Most of them were probably suffering from PTSD, although back then we did not call it that and did not know how to treat it.
His friend was in his late 40’s. At that time, the Veterans Administration was not very helpful towards our veterans. The deceased veteran had no family to speak of. So, I got permission and claimed the body. We did a simple prayer service at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Coram where he was buried.
Someone had given me a large grave there a number of years before. I had seven spots. This man was the first to utilize that gift. I have since used it for a few more people who had no family and no one to care for them after they died.
When I got to the boxed village, it was overwhelming to see so many homeless men with nothing. The homeless man was so grateful that I took care of his friend. I was so saddened that we failed someone who served our country. I asked the homeless man to come with me when I met the Commissioner of Social Services for Suffolk County. He was shocked to hear our story and to hear about the box village. He assured me they would do more.
Some things have changed over the past 30 years but not enough to really make a dent in our homeless population. In the 1990’s, there were certain social safety nets that empowered the homeless to break the cycle of poverty and dependency. Unfortunately, those social nets have fallen by the wayside.
The homeless live in the shadows and in the cracks. They have no fixed address so they have no one to represent them before government.
Thirty years later things are worse; our human resources are dwindling. Our social service system in Suffolk County and around the country is badly broken. We set the homeless up for failure and your tax dollars pay for it.
Presently, we have a Commissioner of Social Services who has a vision that will empower change, but unfortunately, she must deal with the legislature that does not see homelessness as a priority of real concern.
I guess we have forgotten that all life is sacred, even the homeless!
Father Francis Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.