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Bridge of Hope Resource Center

Town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) and PJ Village trustee, Kathianne Snaden, at the town’s Quality of Life Task Force’s first public meeting Dec. 17. Photo by Kyle Barr

As members of the Brookhaven Town’s Quality of Life Task Force walked in to the Comsewogue Public Library Dec. 17, looking to talk about the homeless issue, they were each greeted with a poignant reminder, a shopping cart laden with items, of containers and blankets, sitting in a handicapped space closest to the library’s main doors.

At the area surrounding the railroad tracks in the Port Jefferson area, men and women sleep outside even as the months grow colder. They sleep on benches and on the stoops of dilapidated buildings. Village code enforcement and Suffolk County police have said they know many of them by name, and services for them have been around, in some cases, for decades.

Still, homelessness in the Upper Port and Port Jefferson Station area continues to be an issue that has vexed local municipalities. On both sides of the railroad tracks, along Route 25A, also known as Main Street, residents constantly complain of seeing people sleeping on the stoops of vacant buildings.

But beyond a poor sight, the issue, officials said is multipronged. Dealing with it humanely, especially getting people services, remains complicated, while an all-encompassing, effective solution would require new efforts on every level of government.

Phase two of the task force, officials said, will mean coming out with a full report that includes recommendations, to be released sometime in 2020. Likely, it will come in the form of proposed state legislation regarding access to sober homes, bills to allow assistance in homeless transport, increased sharing of information between departments and municipalities, increased law enforcement activity, and revitalization efforts by both village and town while concurrently tackling quality of life issues.

Efforts by the town

At the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic Association meeting Dec. 17, members of the town’s task force, along with other local legislators, talked with residents about their findings.

The task force came into its own last year after a video of two homeless people having a sexual encounter on a bench in Port Jeff Station exploded in community social media groups like a bag of popcorn heated over a jet engine. The task force has brought together town, police, village, county and other nonprofit advocacy groups to the table, looking to hash out an effective response.

Town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) said much of the first phase of the task force has been collecting data, although some items still remain up in the air. Vincent Rothaar, of Suffolk County’s Department of Social Services, said there have been approximately 48 street homeless, but he was not sure if that was 48 outreaches to a single individual multiple times.

That is not to say the homeless population in the town’s District 1 and PJ Village is stagnant. Much of them are transient homeless, said PJS/T civic president, Sal Pitti, who is an ex-city police officer. Especially since Port Jeff contains the LIRR Station, those who sleep under a tent one morning may be gone the next day.

“It’s not just an issue that’s affected District 1, it’s an issue that’s affected the entire town, is affecting the entire county” Cartright said. “A lot of the legislation we’re putting forward is not just affecting District 1.”

“It’s not just an issue that’s affected District 1, it’s an issue that’s affected the entire town, is affecting the entire county”

– Valerie Cartright

Cartright has said that several months ago she stood out by the side of the road with a homeless couple that after weeks of talks and persuading finally agreed to go into a Suffolk County housing program. The county had called a cab to pick up the couple, and the councilwoman described how the people had to figure out what they were going to bring with them, going down from several bags between them to one bag a piece.

After calling the cab company, Cartright said the car had apparently got turned around, thinking they were in Port Jefferson instead of Port Jefferson Station. To get the homeless couple their ride, she had to make Suffolk County call up the company again.

Cartright has made efforts to use town-owned buses to help transport homeless individuals in emergency situations but was stymied by other members of the Town Board and officials in the county executive’s office, who said it was both unnecessary and not in the town’s purview.

Rothaar said DSS, especially its recently hired director Frances Pierre, would not dismiss any offer from any municipality of additional transportation services.

“We’re up to working with any government entity for the transport of a homeless person to one of our shelters,” he said. “We’re adamant of not just working with the Town of Brookhaven, but working with every municipality in Suffolk County.”

County offers more collaboration

The difficulty comes in trying to get services for the homeless population comes down to two things, officials said. One is the individual’s or group’s willingness to be helped, the other is the way the county manages the homeless person once they make it into the system.

The difficulty is enormous. Cartright said she has personally talked to individuals multiple times over a year before they even give a hint of wanting to be put in the system.

COPE officer for the Suffolk County police 6th Precinct, Casey Hines Berry, said the police have stepped up foot and bike patrols in the station area, the village and the Greenway Trail, along with talking to increasing communication with local businesses and shelters such as Pax Christi.

The Pax Christi Hospitality Center in Port Jefferson. Photo by Kyle Barr

“As we were able to determine who were the individuals committing crimes, we could determine who were the individuals who need housing, who have housing, who are refusing housing,” Berry said. “We did this by collaborating all our different resources within the community.”

She said there have been more arrests, specifically 362 from May 2018 to current date, compared to 245 from the previous time period. The disparity of those numbers she attributed to warrants identifying more people in the area who may be wanted for previous citations, especially in quality of life matters such as public urination or open containers. She added there is no gang activity in Port Jefferson Station, only gang-affiliated people living in the area. In May this year, police arrested one young man of Port Jeff Station for an alleged conspiracy to murder two others in Huntington Station.

But police are not allowed to simply arrest people who may be “loitering” on the street without due cause, she said. If a person is standing on private property, it’s up to the owner to call police to ask them for help getting them to move on. In cases where homeless may be living on property such as the LIPA-owned right-of-way, it’s up to that body to request help removing them.

Police know many of the stationary homeless on a first name basis. Getting them to come in to an emergency shelter or through DSS systems is the difficult part. Many, officials said, simply have difficulty trusting the system — or can’t — such as the case when a homeless, nonmarried couple cannot go into services together and would rather stay together than be separated and have help.

Rothaar said the DSS offers much more than emergency housing, including medical assistance, financial services, along with child and adult protective services.

He said department workers often go out to meet homeless individuals over and over. Each time they may bring a different individual, such as a priest or a different social worker, as if “we keep going out to them again and again, they might respond.” He said they have conducted 18 outreaches in the Port Jeff area since 2018 and have assisted 48 people.

“If we continue to reach out to them, they have come into our care, for lack of a better term, to receive case management services,” he said.

Port Jeff Station/Terryville Chamber of Commerce vice president, Larry Ryan, said the best way to give homeless access to care is to be compassionate.

“People have to be willing to accept help,” he said. “You can offer it all you want but if that person’s not willing to take help, or use the services being provided for them, your hands get tied.”

That sentiment was echoed by Pax Christi director, Stephen Brazeau, who said he has seen DSS making a good effort, especially when the weather gets cold. He added that one must be cautious of thinking someone you meet on the street must be homeless.

“You always need to be there, need to always be available when that ‘yes’ comes,” Brazeau said.

Alex DeRosa, an aide to Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), said the county has already passed legislation, sponsored by Hahn, to allow police a copy of the list of emergency homes that was originally only kept by DSS.

There are more than 200 supportive housing sites in Suffolk County that DSS does not oversee, which are instead overseen by New York State. However, the state does not list where or how many sober homes in the area.

“That’s what we’re trying to change, increase that communication,” said Pitti.

Village works with local shelter

Residents have appeared at village meetings to state they have seen drug deals happening near the LIRR train tracks in Upper Port, specifically surrounding Hope House Ministries, which has provided services for homeless for just under 40 years.

Port Jefferson residents have mentioned witnessing catcalling and harassment on the train platform from people behind Pax Christi’s fence. One resident, Kathleen Riley, said she had witnessed what could have been a drug deal between people using Pax Christi’s back gate to exchange an item that was then taken by people onto a train.

Village officials said they have been in communication with the Pax Christi’s Brazeau. In the past few weeks, village trustee Kathianne Snaden said she has communicated with Pax Christi and has toured their facility along with village manager Joe Palumbo and Fred Leute, acting chief of code enforcement. While she commended the facility for the work it does, she suggested either extending or raising the exterior fence, though Palumbo said he was told they would not be able to take any action on new fencing until at least the new year.

Snaden said the village has also reached out to a fencing company that could create a new, larger fence in between the platform and Pax Christi, in order to reduce sight lines.

Brazeau said the shelter is looking to install a new fence around the side to the front of the building, and has agreed with the village about them installing a higher fence in between Pax Christi and the platform.

Regarding the back gate, he said fire code mandates it be open from the inside, but didn’t rule out including some kind of alarm system at a later date.

MTA representative Vanessa Lockel lauded the new train station to help beautify the area, along with new security cameras for added protection. However, when it came to adding new benches, civic leaders helped squash that attempt. Pitti said they feared more people using the benches for sleeping or encouraging more people to stay and loiter.

Snaden said code enforcement meets every train arriving in an effort to show a presence, which she said has led to a reduction in incidents, though code enforcement is limited in what they can do, with no power of arrest. MTA police, Lockel said, have more than 700 miles of track to cover on the Long Island Rail Road, and not enough people report incidents to their hotline, 718-361-2201, or text [email protected]

Other services available

Celina Wilson, president of the Bridge of Hope Resource Center in Port Jeff Station, has helped identify other nongovernment entities providing services for the homeless population in the area.

She said the two hospitals in Port Jeff, namely St. Charles and Mather, provide similar amounts of service as far as substance abuse, but while St. Charles hosts inpatient detox and rehabilitation services, Mather hosts outpatient alcohol and substance abuse programs.

There are numerous soup kitchens in both the village and station areas, but only two kitchens, Maryhaven and St. Gerard Majella, host food pantries. She said both groups reported to Bridge of Hope there was a decline in people utilizing their services as of a year ago.

Hope House Ministries hosts a range of services for the homeless, including the Pax Christi 25-bed emergency shelter.

“Most people are not aware of the available resources until they are in a crisis,” Wilson said. “And they are scrambling for answers.”

She said largely in the area, “everyone is doing what they are supposed to be doing,” and thanked the local officials for taking action compared to other areas, like Brentwood, whose officials did not make efforts until the situation was already out of control.

“It’s been a wonderful opportunity to work with the members of the task force,” she said.

 

 

 

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Bridge of Hope Resource Center founder Celina Wilson is planning to turn a family owned home on Roe Avenue into a shelter for at-risk girls ages 16 to 21. Image from Google Maps

As the old cliché goes, it’s impossible to know when opportunity will knock, just be ready to answer the door when it does. Opportunity knocked for Celina Wilson about 30 years ago, both literally and figuratively. She went on to dedicate her life’s work to the opportunity that was standing at her front door.

The Port Jefferson Station resident founded Bridge of Hope Resource Center with her husband, George, in the late 1990s, a nonprofit dedicated to strengthening communities through family communication. The organization for years has been holding seminars, forums, workshops and other similar events to educate the community and arm parents with strategies for connecting with teens and young adults. Wilson and the organization’s overarching ethos is that education and prevention are the best means for keeping kids from falling victim to the ills lurking in society, like drug addiction and depression. In 2018, Wilson is hoping to advance Bridge of Hope’s mission a step further.

Wilson’s in-laws lived in Port Jefferson Station for about 30 years, but 10 years ago, after her husband’s mother died, her father-in-law, John Wilson, decided to move out of the longtime family home on Roe Avenue. The home was left to Bridge of Hope to use as an asset, sheltering families in crisis who had a hard time finding a place to live. Wilson said the only stipulation was the tenants needed to find work and contribute to the rent. Over the course of the last decade, Wilson said three or four families have stayed at the home.

Now, she plans to repurpose it to serve as a shelter for at-risk girls between 16 and 21 years old. The shelter — which will be called John’s House, to honor Wilson’s late father-in-law — will be a place for girls who run away from home or pose a risk of doing so due to conflicts with parents or guardians. While at the home, those staying in the five beds will be supervised and subjected to counseling and other programs in an effort to restore open lines of healthy communication with parents.

The inspiration for the home was several decades in the making for Wilson.

She was living with her now-husband’s family in the same Port Jeff Station home about 30 years ago, she recalled, when a 16-year-old boy knocked on her door. Even though it was 10 p.m., the then-21-year-old answered.

“He was wondering if he could sleep in our house,” Wilson said. “He was tired. He had a fight with his mom, and I’m figuring, ‘He must have knocked at plenty of houses. Why ours?’ We didn’t understand. But he asked us, ‘Please, just for the night, can I just come in?’ What went through my mind was, ‘If we don’t let him in, he’s going to be in the street and who knows what?’”

In the morning, Wilson remembers waking up wanting to hear more of his personal story, but by that time, he was already gone.

“What went through my mind was, ‘If we don’t let him in, he’s going to be in the street and who knows what?’”

— Celina Wilson

“I realized then, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s so many young people out there, I wonder what his mom was thinking, if she knew he was somewhere safe,’” she said. “The story repeats itself if we fast forward, but it’s
different today because of what our young people are facing.”

Wilson said the home will be funded by donations and some money from the New York State Office of Children and Family Services, which will also help in placing some of the girls in the home, though space will be available to accommodate the weary traveler like the one who knocked on her door 30 years ago.

“We feel the house is going to be a place where families can send their teens and work on situations that they themselves cannot work on in the home, and prevent them from running away,” Wilson said. “The goal is to reunite that youth back with their family.”

She said the length of stay for occupants will be determined on a case-by-case basis, with an eye toward sheltering those most in need, though she estimated many will be allowed to live there for up to 18 months. Each of the tenants will be expected to participate in counseling sessions and work toward agreed-upon goals, all while Bridge of Hope will be maintaining contact with the families to try to rebuild lines of communication. Wilson said the organization will follow up with the tenants even after they leave the home to make sure they stay on track as they grow up and prepare for independence.

One representative from the resource center will live permanently at the home, who Wilson referred to as the “house mom,” though aides, case workers and other specialists will also be on hand on a rotating basis seven days a week. She said tenants will be supervised at all times and expected to be at the home unless they’re at school, work or an organized activity.

She said admittance into the home will have nothing to do with demographics, as family conflict is common among all segments of society.

“It could be anyone’s child that is out there on the street,” Wilson said. “It could be my child.”

One community member who was helped by Wilson and Bridge of Hope said she sees the organization’s founder as the perfect person for an initiative like John’s House.

“She made things happen for me,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous. She said Wilson and the
center worked with her for five years, assisting in finding work and getting her life on track while dealing with a physical disability. “She’s right for these kids. A lot of young people don’t have a place to go.”

She called Wilson a good person and a woman of her word, adding she wished the founder would run for political office.

Wilson said she contacted the Suffolk County Youth Bureau, an entity under the county executive’s purview dedicated to ensuring effective management of county funds for youth services, for assistance in
establishing policies for her initiative. She said the organization also conducted an inspection at the house, which will undergo minor renovations prior to her October target date for opening.

Though members of the bureau’s leadership declined to comment on the dealings with Bridge of Hope, one of its responsibilities includes monitoring and evaluating youth programs, research and planning; information and referrals; and training and technical assistance for community-based youth organizations, according to its website.

Wilson said she sees John’s house as a fitting tribute for the man it’s named after, who migrated to the United States from Jamaica in the Caribbean. He worked for years as a custodian at John T. Mather Memorial Hospital.

“He left such a legacy here and abroad that we thought it appropriate to call it John’s House because he lived a life of service, kindness and love to his fellow man,” she said.

To donate to help Wilson’s cause, visit www.gofundme.com/xtzv6n-hope-for-her.

Helping the Port Jefferson Station community has been Celina Wilson’s, center, mission since the 1980s. Photo from Facebook

By Rebecca Anzel

When Celina Wilson moved to Port Jefferson Station in 1985, she noticed her new community was underserved — and that she could help. Some Spanish-speaking female residents had problems accessing health care, specifically mammograms.

A nurse and Spanish-speaker herself, Wilson worked to partner with the American Cancer Association to bring these women informational materials, teach them how to conduct self-examinations and schedule mammograms with a mobile service.

She founded Bridge of Hope Resource Center in 1998 with her husband to continue helping Port Jefferson Station residents get free health care by partnering with other organizations and community leaders. As other issues the community faced came to her attention, Wilson expanded the scope of Bridge of Hope to include them.

The organization gets feedback from residents and takes them straight to public officials. So far, it has tackled issues such as safety in schools post-Sandy Hook and drug abuse awareness and prevention.

“I believe that the more awareness you raise about issues communities face, the less chance there is of our communities becoming unstable,” Wilson said. “I really want Port Jefferson Station to stay strong.”

For her work advocating for Port Jefferson Station residents and fighting to combat drug abuse, Times Beacon Record News Media is recognizing Celina Wilson as a Person of the Year.

“Celina Wilson is a resource for Port Jeff Station — she’s been doing this for decades,” Port Jefferson Mayor Margot Garant said in an interview. “She does this because she cares so much about not only her own children, but all our children, and I am just so impressed by her.”

Bridge of Hope uses education as a tool to help show community members why drug use is dangerous. Wilson said she thinks it is important to share information about the “basics” of drug abuse — what changes it makes in a user’s brain, risk factors that might lead to someone turning to drugs and signs someone is using.

“We work to make sure that when you look at Port Jefferson Station, people know it’s a community that’s got it together and can weather any problems.”

— Celina Wilson

She shared that information in an educational forum at Port Jefferson High School in mid-October. Also on the panel was a Stony Brook Children’s Hospital doctor of adolescent medicine and a scientist who focuses on addiction’s effect on the brain. The event marked the first time Bridge of Hope was able to host an educational event in a school.

The goal of the forum, Wilson said, was to educate parents and others in attendance about the “root causes” of drug abuse. She expressed to parents there are signs to look for and risk factors that might lead their children to turn to drugs — such as not understanding the world around them and a lack of confidence and self-esteem — and stressed the importance of keeping an open line of communication with their children.

“It’s important that parents are educated about these things so they don’t feel helpless,” Wilson said. “I found out a week or two later the parents there were receptive to the information we shared at the forum, which was a big accomplishment for us.”

Other educational efforts include publishing an article called “The Amazing Human Brain” on the Bridge of Hope website that focuses on brain function and working to create a traveling museum exhibit to make the community more aware of drug abuse.

Dori Scofield, founder of Dan’s Foundation for Recovery, worked with Wilson on the exhibit, which will launch next year. She said she loves the work Bridge of Hope does making a difference in the community.

“Celina is amazing and I love working with her on community issues,” she said. “She is an inspiration to all of us who work in the field of improving life for all.”

Bridge of Hope also works in Brentwood, Central Islip and Bay Shore, but creating a support system for residents in Port Jefferson Station is not any less important to Wilson now than it was when the organization was founded 18 years ago.

“We really want our community to stay strong and our families to have stability. We don’t want to hear about our youths overdosing,” Wilson said. “We work to make sure that when you look at Port Jefferson Station, people know it’s a community that’s got it together and can weather any problems.”

The organization also offers mentoring opportunities for teens in need of extra guidance.

To contact Bridge of Hope Resource Center call 631-338-4340 or visit www.bridgeofhoperc.com.

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Celina Wilson, left, of Bridge of Hope Resource Center, and Zachary Jacobs, right, of Stony Brook Children’s Hospital, address community members who attended an educational forum at Port Jefferson high school Oct. 19. Photos by Alex Petroski

Port Jefferson high school played host to an educational forum on the ongoing addiction problem facing the community Oct. 19.

The forum, entitled The Adolescent Brain: Preventing High-Risk Behaviors, was presented by Bridge of Hope Resource Center, a Port Jefferson Station nonprofit created in 1998 with the goal of improving the lives of individuals in the community and is a strong advocate in the fight against addiction. Speakers featured a former Brookhaven National Lab scientist who specializes in addiction and the human brain, a doctor in the field of adolescent medicine at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital and the founder and president of the nonprofit.

Suffolk County has statistically been one of the greatest areas of concern in New York for heroin and opioid deaths in recent years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Suffolk County Police Commissioner Tim Sini said the county has had more than 100 opioid-related overdoses for several consecutive years.

The issue is not just in New York. According to the CDC, from 2005 to 2014, drug overdose deaths have risen by 144 percent to 2,300 deaths in New York and 58 percent to 47,055 deaths in the nation.

Dr. Joanne Fowler has studied how the human brain changes as a result of drug use since the late 1980s at stops including Brookhaven National Lab. She shared some of her decades of findings with those in attendance.

“When you think about addiction, it’s a really complex problem, and you have many, many factors that play into it,” she said. “Addiction, I would call, the loss of control of a behavior even though it’s causing a lot of problems to the individual. It’s a very destructive behavior that the individual can’t stop even though they want to stop.”

Fowler said the age in which an individual begins a behavior, like using drugs, can play a large roll in addiction because the part of the brain susceptible to addiction takes time to mature.

“The frontal cortex is a very important part of the brain,” she said. “It matures very slowly, so you really don’t have a mature frontal cortex until your early twenties.”

Dr. Zachary Jacobs, who works as a counselor for children at Stony Brook, discussed some risk factors for children and adolescents that could lead down a path of addiction, and some are out of a parent’s control.

“We’ve heard a lot about what parents and family can do, and I’m here to say despite your best efforts, it still might not be enough,” he said. “Despite a strong family, great, open communication, sometimes adolescents are just going to become their own individuals that disagree with family and societal norms … peers become so much more important than family, I’m sorry to say that.”

He recommended open communication and education as a means to combat potentially addictive, hazardous behaviors in children and adolescents to at least avoid issues with addiction, but total prevention is not that simple, he said.

Celina Wilson started Bridge of Hope Resource Center. She is the mother of three children, and she identified several risk factors parents should look for as potential signs of addiction. Insecurity pertaining to body image or loneliness, stress, life-changing events such as a divorce or death in the family, bullying, failure or rejection, depression, academic challenges, failure in competitive sports, a need for acceptance and several others were the factors Wilson suggested parents should be wary of and could be the root of later addiction.

“We have to help our teens better understand the world,” Wilson said. “We have to explain and review risks with them as much as possible.”