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Long Island Coalition for the Homeless

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Dean Jones, a resident of the Concern for Independent Living facility in Amityville which is constructing a new project in Port Jeff Station, speaks during a press conference on affordable housing in Suffolk County Oct. 2 flanked on the left by Richard Koubek, chair of the Welfare to Work Commission, and on the right by Legislator DuWayne Gregory. Photo by Kyle Barr

It’s already difficult for both the young and old to find affordable housing in Suffolk County, but according to a recent report, the lack of low-cost homes and apartments is forcing some people to live without roofs over their heads entirely.

The Suffolk County Legislature’s Welfare to Work Commission, which advises the legislature on issues related to poverty in the county, released a report Oct. 2 that detailed the holes in affordable housing and government programs. Many of those homeless in Suffolk have some sort of job or income, according to the report.

“There has been some progress on public acceptance for affordable housing especially for working people, and especially for young people and senior citizens,” said Richard Koubek, the chair of the commission. “There still remains obstacles for creating affordable housing for two groups of residents: one is working poor families … the other are people who have mental illness which often leads to homelessness.”

The commission spent two-and-a-half years studying the issue of affordable housing and other related problems, including the county’s capacity to aid the homeless and those suffering from mental health issues. The final report showed high home and rent costs, along with government programs unable to handle the current numbers of people suffering from mental health issues, among its conclusions.

“There still remains obstacles for creating affordable housing for two groups of residents: one is working poor families … the other are people who have mental illness which often leads to homelessness.”

— Richard Koubek

Need for more affordable and supportive housing

As of January 2018, the advocacy group Long Island Coalition for the Homeless reported there were 3,868 homeless individuals in Nassau and Suffolk counties. Not all homeless are considered chronically homeless, or individuals who have a disability and have been homeless for more than 12 months, or have had at least four stints without a home in the last three years. About 500 families are homeless, or 2,500 individuals, in Suffolk County, of which half have a source of income but are still unable to afford housing or rent costs, according to the report. The report said the county spends more than $19 million annually feeding and supporting this population.

The report noted the 2017 Suffolk County area yearly median income is $110,800, while the median price of a home in 2017 was $376,000, according to census data. If an individual or family spent 30 percent of income on housing costs, the national and suggested average, they would have to earn $125,000 a year to afford the median home price.

If a family wanted to rent, only 18 percent of available housing is rental, compared to the national average of 37 percent. Market rate for monthly apartment rentals in Suffolk was $1,589 in 2017, according to census data, meaning families in that market would have to earn $57,204 — 52 percent of the area median income — a year if they spent 30 percent of their income on the apartment costs. New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli (D) said Suffolk was ranked 57th out of 62 New York counties in rental affordability.

Greta Guarton, the executive director of the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless, said among government entities there is more of an emphasis on removing people from poverty rather than aiding people in poverty.

“The thinking used to be 20 percent of those who are homeless use 80 percent of emergency services,” Guarton said. “A fresh look at homelessness shows 80 percent of homeless families do not have disabilities. … In places like Long Island these people are homeless because they cannot find an affordable rental unit in this region’s tight, extremely expensive housing market.”

The LICH director added the most effective approach to combating homelessness is the Housing First Model, which tries to provide stability in a person’s life through housing, in addition to treatment and supportive services. With housing secured, those suffering from chronic homelessness can focus on stabilizing other parts of their lives, the report said.

“In places like Long Island these people are homeless because they cannot find an affordable rental unit in this region’s tight, extremely expensive housing market.”

— Greta Guarton

It is especially difficult for those suffering from mental illness to find affordable housing. Koubek said the emphasis has been moving away from asylums since the 1960s and toward community care facilities, but those smaller-scale places have not been financially supported, and there simply aren’t enough of them. The Suffolk County Department of Health Division of Community Mental Hygiene Services’ Single Point of Access program, which places people with mental illness into supportive housing, had a wait list 887 people long as of late 2017, according to the report. Those who wish to be placed on the list must attain a physician’s diagnosis, which the report calls difficult if the person is suffering alone or is already homeless.

People with undiagnosed mental illness also create a vacuum of funds — utilizing a huge chunk of the county’s money allocated for homeless programs. The report noted as much as $8 million of the $10 million in grants for homeless programs awarded to Long Island’s federal Department of Housing and Urban Development funded Continuum of Care program went to serving those with undiagnosed mental issues.

The study also pointed to incidents where people suffering from mental health issues were discharged from hospitals before they could receive the proper care. This puts more of an emphasis on requiring local government to funnel these people into supportive housing, which is difficult if they are released onto the street or remain undiagnosed.

The commission named a number of countywide solutions to address these issues, including increasing funding for the SPA program and improving the number of placements, prioritizing homeless families on the Public Housing Authority waiting lists, addressing substandard housing, improving Suffolk hospital discharge policies for the homeless and creating a coordinated county response to address low-income housing.

Current affordable housing projects trying to meet demand

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced May 10 $25.6 million had been awarded to four housing developments on Long Island to create 239 affordable homes.

On the state level, the report requested New York increases financial supports for capital construction and operating costs of supportive housing, and that it turns over unused state property to the county for the construction of more supportive housing.

Legislature Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) and Legislator Tom Donnelly (D-Deer Park), who also chairs the legislature’s Education & Human Services Committee, each said Oct. 2 a need exists for public-private partnerships to create more affordable housing options.

“Homelessness is not imagined — it exists here in Suffolk County because of government policies which create instability,” Gregory said. “If people are spending a greater percent of their income on housing costs it leads to difficult choices. Will they buy food and clothing for their children or will they pay for their own home?”

“If people are spending a greater percent of their income on housing costs it leads to difficult choices. Will they buy food and clothing for their children or will they pay for their own home?”

— DuWayne Gregory

In 2007 the commission issued another report, “Affordable for Whom? Creating Housing for Low and Moderate-Income People in Suffolk County,” which noted a public opinion poll showing 70 percent of Long Islanders seeing the need for more affordable housing while two-thirds of the same population not wanting it near their own communities. Koubek said this attitude is changing somewhat, but getting projects like these approved remains a tall task.

Roger Weaving Jr., the president of the Huntington Township Housing Coalition, said the lack of affordable housing is a major reason why so many young people are leaving for other states. Many Long Islanders express concerns about having affordable two- to three-bedroom apartments in their communities, despite obvious demand for such dwellings.

“On the North Shore you can either have a single-family house or you can leave,” Weaving said. “While some of this is affected by state and county actions, a lot of action is at the town level, because they control zoning.”

Out of the money Cuomo helped set aside for affordable housing, $8.1 million was tabbed for construction of six two-story buildings on vacant land off Route 112 in Port Jefferson Station, north of East Grove Street and south of Washington Avenue. The project is being constructed by Medford-based Concern for Independent Living Inc. The development came under fire from the community, during a Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic Association meeting in May for various reasons, including concerns about overdevelopment and costs to educate children living in the new buildings.

Ralph Fasano, the executive director of Concern for Independent Living, said a section of the development is dedicated to housing veterans as well. He said the company plans to break ground on the project by December.

“It’s going to look [like the company’s development in Amityville] – it’s going to be quiet.” Fasano said.

PJSTCA president, Sal Pitti, declined to comment, and said the association would be having a civic member vote Oct. 23 at 7 p.m. on whether or not to publicly support the project.

Federal government deems Suffolk one of 29 places in nation to successfully address issue

Veterans salute a memorial in Northport Village on Memorial Day. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

By Victoria Espinoza

Long Island has joined the ranks of only a select few regions of the United States in bringing an “effective end” to veteran homelessness.

The community has a “systematic response in place that ensures homelessness is prevented whenever possible, or if it can’t be prevented, it is a rare, brief and nonrecurring experience,” according to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness.

North Shore legislators and organizations have worked together for the past several years to get an estimate on the number of homeless veterans living on Long Island and to make sure they are aware of all resources available to them.

In June 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama (D) signed the Opening Doors bill, which approved a comprehensive federal 10-year plan to end and prevent homelessness. The bill was the first of its kind in the United States.

“I thank God everyday there are people that have the compassion to fight for us.” — Todd Shaw

The strategy focuses on many different subgroups of the homeless population, and the first to be tackled was homeless veterans. The goal was to see an end to veteran homelessness by 2015 in accordance with the federal plan, and that is what Suffolk and Nassau counties have achieved.

In 2014, the Mayors Challenge to End Veterans Homelessness was announced, which helped unite local leaders with organizations within their communities to help tackle the problem together. It also helped give specific parameters of what a community must do to achieve an “effective end” rating from the Interagency Council on Homelessness.

Politicians worked with North Shore organizations including the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless, the United Veterans Beacon House and more.

Mike Giuffrida, associate director of the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless said the coalition has been working with other groups to whittle down a master list with names of 748 homeless Long Island veterans in the hopes of reaching zero by the 2015 deadline set by Opening Doors.

Once they had the list, the coalition and other nonprofits started informing homeless veterans of the resources at their disposal. Giuffrida said members of the nonprofit and veterans themselves help with letting other vets know their options.

“We always have veterans doing veteran outreach, some of whom were also formerly homeless,” Giuffrida said in a phone interview.

Legislator Steve Stern announces Long Island’s achievement in supporting and working with homeless veterans. Photo from Stern's office
Legislator Steve Stern announces Long Island’s achievement in supporting and working with homeless veterans. Photo from Stern’s office

Todd Shaw is one of those volunteers. He served in the Army for 13 years, from 1975 through 1988, and found himself without a residence for about five months in 2014. At the time he was being treated as an inpatient at the Northport VA Medical Center, where he learned about Liberty Village, a 60-unit apartment complex in Amityville that provides housing exclusively for veterans.

“Timing is everything,” Shaw said in a phone interview of the circumstances that led to him applying and later being accepted into Liberty House. “It’s a very liberating thing to have a safe haven, a place to come home to at the end of the day.”

The 61-year-old veteran said he enjoys volunteering with the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless because he is able to give back.

“I come from a strong patriotic family,” he said. Both of his parents served in the armed forces. “I feel good by doing good. I thank God everyday there are people that have the compassion to fight for us.”

Frank Amalfitano, president and CEO of United Veterans Beacon House, another organization that specializes in homeless veteran outreach, said members of the nonprofit go into communities, visiting abandoned buildings, train stations, woods and fast-food restaurants to find veterans and offer them shelter and continuing care options.

Amalfitano said offering homeless veterans different options is crucial, because “you don’t want to set people up to fail. Some veterans come in and they have an income but emotional problems, or they don’t manage their money well.”

Because each case is different there are permanent, temporary and emergency housing options, according to Amalfitano. He also said some homeless veterans are not interested in any of the services, however they are continually revisited in case they change their minds.

“In some cases there may be a lack of trust, they feel safer out in the woods than they do in a shelter,” he said. “But at least now they know in case they get sick or change their minds.”

Suffolk County seeks to help house veterans. File photo
Suffolk County seeks to help house veterans. File photo

The president said United Veterans Beacon House can now accommodate any veteran within 24 hours — in some cases even quicker than that.

Giuffrida said by December 2015, the goal was to have housed 748 veterans. By the deadline 799 homeless veterans were given shelter and services. “Just last month we housed our 1,000th veteran,” he said.

He clarified that declaring an “effective end” does not mean there are zero homeless veterans on Long Island.

“This means there is a system in place [where] we can move any veteran that becomes homeless into a house in 90 days or less,” he said.

But he is excited with the progress that has been made. “We want the veterans in our communities to know we have a relentless dedication to them,” he said.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D), a veteran himself, was one of many North Shore leaders that stepped up to the plate to help support local agencies.

“Our veterans served with dignity abroad, when they come home they should, in turn, be provided the dignity of adequate shelter for themselves and their families,” Bellone said in a statement.

Suffolk County Legislator Steve Stern (D-Dix Hills) has worked on legislation to help end veteran homelessness, including the Housing Our Homeless Heroes Act, which allows for zombie homes, or tax-defaulted properties in Suffolk County to be redistributed to veterans.

He said he’s proud of this achievement: “It sends the important message that we will always make sure our veterans have the support they need.”

Stern also commended the efforts of the various local organizations.

“This is an extraordinary accomplishment, one that reflects the dedication and tireless work of agencies … that have increased availability of housing for those who have sacrificed so much to serve our great nation and their families,” he said.

Only two states and 27 other communities in the country have reached this status.

Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker helped form a task force to increase quality of life concerns regarding the Coram Plaza. Photo from Sarah Anker

Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), alongside Legislator Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue), have formed the Coram Plaza Revitalization Task Force in response to quality of life concerns in Coram. The task force is made up of many stakeholders from the community, including elected officials from the state, county and town, local civic leaders, property managers, police and representatives from not-for-profit organizations.

Since Anker formed the task force last month, the community has seen improvements in safety and quality of life around the plaza. An increase in police patrol of the area has resulted in several arrests, and as suggested by the task force, store owners within the shopping plaza have increased their private security.

“Since the creation of the Coram Plaza Revitalization Task Force, the community has noticed a substantial difference in the quality of the Coram Plaza.”

—Sarah Anker

Anker has also worked with police officers from the 6th Precinct and the staff of Lighthouse Mission, a Bellport based 501(c)(3) not-for-profit that exists to feed the hungry and help the homeless, to relocate its mobile food pantry to the Suffolk County Probation building on Middle Country Road.

“Since the creation of the Coram Plaza Revitalization Task Force, the community has noticed a substantial difference in the quality of the Coram Plaza,” Anker said. “Working with the property managers, Suffolk County Police, local elected officials and not-for-profit organizations has truly made a difference in the community. I look forward to continuing to work with stakeholders to improve the conditions of the plaza and to revitalize this important economic engine in Coram.”

In addition to increasing security around the plaza, Anker has also been working directly with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) office and the New York State Department of Transportation to clean up a wooded parcel near the plaza.

Increasing visibility in the area may reduce the use of these woods as a camping area for displaced individuals. Suffolk County Department of Social Services, Long Island Coalition for the Homeless, Hope House and Service for the Underserved will continue to provide assistance to these individuals. For more information, contact Anker’s office at 631-854-1600.

File photo

Suffolk County Legislator Steve Stern (D-Dix Hills) and the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless are seeking the public’s help to provide more than 4,000 school supplies and backpacks to kids in need.

Drop off school supplies at Stern’s office at 1842 East Jericho Turnpike in Huntington, through August 10, anytime between Mondays and Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

Supplies sought include backpacks, crayons, pencils, binders, erasers, sharpeners, calculators, glue sticks, pens, colored pencils, highlighters, pocket folders, compasses, index cards, protractors, composition books and more.

For more information on how you can help, visit the coalition’s website here.