By Leah Chiappino
Like most nonprofit organizations, the Smithtown Children’s Foundation, since the pandemic, is helping more families with less funds.
Christine Fitzgerald, executive director and one of the founders of the Smithtown Children’s Foundation, said calls of housing insecurity especially are coming in large numbers to the nonprofit, which assists Smithtown-area families in need.
“I’m sure if you ask people who are not paying attention, they will say, ‘Oh, no, everything’s fine,’” she said. “It’s not. It’s really not.”
Fitzgerald said she received a call from a Commack homeless shelter last year about a 22-year-old woman who was raising her three teenage siblings, seeking to provide them with more stable housing. The young woman had her home health aide license, but her car was dead, so the foundation raised the funds to fix it.
After that, Fitzgerald told the shelter to call her and “vouch” for other moms in need.
“We get a lot of frequent flyers in the system, and we just don’t have the resources for that, to be throwing money around,” she said.
The next call came for a single mom with three kids working several jobs while caring for a baby with health issues. She was close to getting into an apartment but needed help paying the $1,700 deposit fee.
“She does sound like a real hustler, a gig employee, she does DoorDash, does hair, does balloon arches, does everything,” Fitzgerald said.
The woman didn’t live in Smithtown, so Fitzgerald couldn’t write the check from foundation funds. However, through Hart to Hearts, a chapter of the Smithtown Children’s Foundation named in memory of a local single dad who adopted several children, she started a fundraiser through Facebook.
They wound up having enough funds to cover movers and are offering the mother school supplies, backpacks and gift cards for clothing.
Through the foundation’s Anthony’s Hope chapter, the foundation came across another young mom sleeping in her car. She works full-time and delivers for Uber Eats and DoorDash on the side while trying to save up for an apartment deposit. The foundation is also raising funds for her, Fitzgerald said, who said she vetted the women in need before agreeing to help with the social workers who referred her.
“I said ‘I can’t just throw good money after bad if I’m going to pay a deposit, and then she’s going to move in and she has no way to support herself and she’s going to get kicked out,”’ she said. “I need to know more.”
These stories have been common since the pandemic, according to Fitzgerald.
“We’re getting people in shelters or people saying I need housing, and I can’t pay the security deposit,” she said.
Yolanda Robano-Gross, CEO of Ronkonkoma-based Options for Community Living, said she does come across homeless people in Smithtown and the surrounding areas.
“There’s a lot of families out there,” she said. “There are people that kind of manage and float under the radar. They couch surf from friend to friend. They are able to maintain their cars. They have a low-end gym membership, which allows them a place to shower.”
But, she added, “The large majority of the general population has a very skewed picture. They picture that person when they get off the train at Penn Station, see the show and have dinner, who has the cardboard sign and is sitting on the corner. And while that’s certainly a part of the population, it’s not the majority.”
Homelessness isn’t always visible in areas like Smithtown, according to Mike Guiffrida, associate director of the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless, which runs several outreach and direct service programs, including a street outreach team.
Giuffrida has seen homelessness increase among the elderly, who are being priced out of the housing market and generally have medical debt, and young mothers between the ages of 25 to 35, who cannot afford the cost of living and do not have established careers.
The backlog of evictions put on hold during the pandemic has recently started to pick up.
“I think an area like Smithtown is a really good example of an opportunity to bring awareness to an issue like homelessness while it might not be overly seen and visible within the community,” Giuffrida said.
Some homeless people throughout Long Island live in their cars but do not have a consistent space to park their cars, making it difficult to track them down. It often takes good Samaritans calling and reporting the person for the coalition to offer them services.
“We really rely on the community to be the eyes and the ears because homelessness looks different on Long Island than it does in other areas, not only in the sense that you don’t see it but also in the trends of how people are living specifically,” he said.
In Smithtown, libraries have helped serve and identify the homeless, Guiffrida said. He added that giving them a place to use the computer to access resources has been instrumental. Police have also played a role.
“We’ve seen this encouraging trend where police are kind of seeking an alternative and more supportive way to engage people that are in that situation,” Giuffrida noted. “They’re contacting us and partnering with the outreach teams and other support.”
With some exceptions, such as veterans, youth or victims of domestic violence, households have to go through the Department of Social Services to access shelters in Suffolk County, said Giuffrida. When people call and ask for the nearest shelter, the coalition cannot give them an answer because the nearest shelter may not be available or the person may not be eligible.
Data on the number of homeless people in the area is difficult to interpret, according to Guiffrida.
A spokesperson for the Suffolk County Police Department said they could not “quantify calls about homeless people.” When asked about the number of calls received about the homeless in Smithtown this year, due to the fact they are classified as a disturbance, a code used for several issues such as parking problems, dogs barking, loud parties, loose animals and neighbor disputes.
Smithtown Public Information Officer Nicole Garguilo said the Town supervisor’s office had not received calls from residents about the homeless.
Data for last year on the number of homeless on Long Island from the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless include 9,687 total people, 3,692 single adults and 6,005 households with children.
If you see someone you think may be homeless, call the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless helpline at 631-464-4314, ext. 118.