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United Veterans Beacon House

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Veterans for a More Responsive Government, Quick Stop Deli & Catering provide meals for those who served

Volunteers gathered outside Quick Stop Deli and Catering in Commack before bringing St. Patricks Day meals to homeless veterans. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh.

A St. James resident and Commack business owner worked together to make sure the luck of the Irish was
delivered to homeless veterans from Huntington to Riverhead this weekend.

As many Smithtown area residents were waking to find the sun shining on St. Patrick’s Day, Robert Cornicelli, founder of the nonprofit Veterans for a More Responsive Government, gathered his friends and volunteers over cups of coffee at Quick Stop Deli & Catering in Commack.

A volunteer with St. James resident Robert Cornicelli packs meals into a car for delivery. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh.

Cornicelli, a U.S. Army veteran who retired in November 2017, organized the loading of boxes of prepacked meals in the back of a car to be delivered to disabled homeless veterans at nine United Veterans Beacon House locations throughout Suffolk County. Beacon House is a Bay Shore-based nonprofit that provides housing for homeless veterans, many of whom are disabled due to physical injuries or mental impairments related to their time in the service.

“Every Thanksgiving, I would raise money to bring Thanksgiving meals to Beacon House, then it became Thanksgiving, Christmas and Super Bowl Sunday,” Cornicelli said. “I decided I’m going to try to do this for every major holiday.”

He launched a GoFundMe campaign mid-February that quickly raised more than $1,000 towards the March 17 feast. When Cornicelli mentioned his idea to longtime friend Rudy Massa, owner of Gasoline Heaven and Quick Stop Deli & Catering, he quickly stepped in to provide food for the 107 veterans and cover the remaining costs.

“Why not? I’m in; let’s do something,” said Massa, a U.S. Army veteran, in remembering their conversation. “We are trying to do the right thing and give back to the community a little bit.”

St. Patricks Day meals for homeless veterans made by Quick Stop Deli & Catering in Commack. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh.

On Saturday, Massa provided 107 plates of a “proper St. Patrick’s Day feast” consisting of corned beef and cabbage, Irish-style potatoes, carrots, Irish soda bread and the utensils needed to dig in.

Joining Cornicelli and Massa in delivering the meals was U.S. Marine Corp veteran Terry Devaney, a resident of one of the Beacon House locations in Huntington. He wanted to lend a hand after enjoying the Super Bowl meals set up by the St. James nonprofit in conjunction with Tommy O’Grady, owner of Miller Place’s Tuscany Gourmet Market, last month.

“It’s very gratifying to know that people are thinking about you,” Devaney said. “A lot of veterans feel they are kind of forgotten once they are discharged.”

Devaney, who served in the Vietnam War, retired from his position as a veteran service officer for Suffolk County in September 2017 suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He said he wanted to help as the free meals provided by Cornicelli and his nonprofit go a long way towards boosting morale. 

“It may seem like a small matter to most people, but a good meal can mean a lot,” Devaney said. “To have them deliver it and say thank you for your service, it re-instills your pride in having served.” 

Huntington Station veteran Jerome Robinson, ninth from left, stands with the 2017 VetsBuild graduating class at the Huntington Opportunity Resource Center Nov. 13. Photo by Sara-Megan Walsh

Veterans who have served our country are proving in Huntington Station they can also learn the skills to help build a better local community.

More than 20 veterans received their certification in construction at the Huntington Opportunity Resource Center Nov. 13 after successfully passing through VetsBuild, a program offered by the nonprofit United Way of Long Island, that provides job training in green construction, facility maintenance and technology for veterans and their families.

“VetsBuild is not just about teaching home building skills and construction skills, it’s about building your lives,” said Craig Fligstein, vice president of community impact for United Way of LI. “It has accelerated positive changes in your life and allowed you to take a new turn in your career.”

Huntington Station resident Jerome Robinson, a 2017 VetsBuild graduate, said he served 11 years in the U.S. Army and as an officer in U.S. Army Reserves.

“We have served our country in different ways, but we are all looking for a way to move forward and find a new and exciting career path for ourselves,” Robinson said. “Personally, VetsBuild has opened up a number of doors.”

Robinson, 52, said he was previously employed doing overnight custodial work for Stony Brook University and struggled to make ends meet after being laid off in September. He learned about the free six-week construction program through United Veterans Beacon House, a nonprofit organization that provides temporary and permanent residences for U.S. Military veterans in Nassau and Suffolk counties, and started classes Oct. 2.

“I knew it was a chance to make myself more marketable to potential employers and find a career,” Robinson said.

VetsBuild will offer two to three training sessions a year for veterans depending on demand, according to Rick Wertheim, the senior vice president of housing and green initiatives for the United Way of LI. Those enrolled take daily classes in basic construction techniques and earn their Occupational Safety and Health Administration 10-hour certification. Students then have the opportunity to train in specialized disciplines of the trade, from electrical to gas work, based on their interests, Wertheim said.

Robinson said he will be moving forward with GasPro, to gain skills in gas appliance installation and repairs. Others in his class will become electrical apprentices and at least one will be going back to college for an associates degree in renewable energy.

The skills the veterans have learned are used to build energy-smart homes throughout Long Island, including some for other veterans in need. The United Way of LI debuted the most recently completed VetsBuild home at 40 Depot Road in Huntington Station. It was specially commissioned by United Veterans Beacon house to become a residence for five veterans with special needs.

The more than 3,500-square-foot house was named the 2017 Grand Winner for Innovation in Affordable Homes by the U.S. Department of Energy as part of its Housing Innovation Awards. The Depot Road home earned the recognition by being a “zero energy ready home” because it incorporates specialized innovative green features. These features render the projected annual energy cost at a netgain of $200 per year due to its capability to sell off excess energy produced by its photovoltaic solar panels. Other green technology featured in the home includes a solar thermal water heating system, internet-controlled heating and air conditioning, and 100 percent LED lighting.

A scholarship has been launched to honor the memory of Northport resident Scott Martella who died in 2016. File photo

By Sara-Megan Walsh

A Smithtown family is hoping to honor the life of their son by providing others with an educational opportunity to follow in his footsteps.

Stacy and Stephen Martella announced the creation of the Scott Martella Memorial Scholarship Fund in partnership with The United Way of Long Island in memory of their son, who was killed a year ago.

Scott Martella was a Smithtown student who worked with local politicians. File photo

Scott Martella, a Smithtown native and Northport resident, died in a three-car crash on the Long Island Expressway Aug. 21, 2016.

“Scott believed in the awesome power of public service,” his parents said in a statement. “We hope to keep his legacy alive by giving future leaders the same chance Scott had in pursuing a college education.”

The memorial fund aims to provide scholarships to low-income students who will be attending college and whose studies may include international or public relations.

In conjunction with the scholarship fund, Smithtown Central School District announced it will be creating a series of service learning projects for students that will run from October 2017 to May 2018. This will be done in partnership with the United Veterans Beacon House, a nonprofit partner agency of United Way, to work together on a host of activities such as painting, planting a garden, landscaping and more.

Scott Martella, who was 29 when he died, is widely remembered for his career in public service and his involvement in New York State government and politics. Martella got started when, at age 22, he became the youngest board of education member elected in Smithtown school district’s history in 2009.

From 2011 to 2015, Martella  served as Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) Suffolk County representative before being promoted to Long Island regional representative. In June 2015, he started working as the director of communications for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D).

“Scott believed in the awesome power of public service. We hope to keep his legacy alive by giving future leaders the same chance Scott had in pursuing a college education.”

— Stacy and Stephen Martella

“Scott was clearly one of the most engaging people that I’ve come across in government,” Bellone said in an interview. “Beyond the fact that he was smart, talented and hardworking, he had that something extra special that he was able to make that connection with people.”

In addition to the scholarship fund, Martella’s parents and Bellone hosted a Back-to-School Drive this month to provide supplies for underprivileged students. They said their goal was to prepare 5,000 backpacks for homeless or at-risk children.

“One of the last major events [Scott] did before he died was put together this Back-to-School Drive with Long Island Coalition for the Homeless,” Bellone said. “It’s obviously sad to think that he’s gone, but this was also a way to carry on his legacy of public service, a very appropriate way to carry on his legacy of public service.”

Charitable contributions to The Scott Martella Memorial Scholarship Fund can be made online at www.scottmartella.com or www.unitedwayli.org/ScottMartellaMemorialScholarshipFund.

All donations made by check should be written out to include The Scott Martella Memorial Scholarship Fund on the envelope as well as the memo section. Checks should be made payable to United Way of Long Island, 819 Grand Blvd., Deer Park, NY 11729.

Members of CTeen of West Suffolk pose for a photo with Rabbi Dovid Weinbaum before donating toys. Photo from The Chai Center

GIVING BACK: Teens from The Chai Center’s CTeen chapter in Dix Hills (CTeen West Suffolk County) recently shopped for and purchased more than 50 new toys that were donated to families living in the United Veterans Beacon House facilities in Nassau and Suffolk counties. United Veterans Beacon House Inc. is a not-for-profit charitable organization with a mission to provide transitional and permanent housing to U.S. military veterans and men, women and women with children. The teens also baked cookies to be delivered with the toys.

With over 200 chapters globally and tens of thousands of members, CTeen, the fastest growing Jewish teen network in the world, inspires and facilitates teens who want to give back to their community and environment, with an emphasis on positive character development. The CTeen Dix Hills chapter has more than 40 members and is based at The Chai Center (501 Vanderbilt Parkway) and run by Rabbi Dovid Weinbaum.

“The Talmud says that each person is a whole world and therefore by helping one person you’re helping the whole world. We are immensely proud of the teens in our chapter who continually embrace this idea and have made it a priority to think beyond themselves and give back to their community and those in need,” said Rabbi Weinbaum. For more information, visit www.thechaicenter.com.

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 Steve Stern joins Congressman Steve Israel at the site of a zombie home in Dix Hills. Photo from Amanda Lindner.

One North Shore lawmaker’s proposal to provide housing to homeless veterans is now being used as a model for a federal bill.

U.S. Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) introduced the Housing Our Heroes Act this month, which creates a three-year federal pilot program that provides grants to purchase and renovate zombie homes for veterans use. That proposal reflects similar sentiments expressed in legislation Suffolk County Legislator Steve Stern (D-Dix Hills) drafted last year.

The Housing Our Homeless Heroes Act, signed by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) in December 2014, allows for “zombie homes,” or tax-defaulted properties, in Suffolk County to be distributed to veterans.

“No soldier who has ever worn the uniform of our great nation and gone off to protect the ground we stand on should ever have to come home to sleep on it,” Stern said in a statement.

Israel’s legislation is an expansion on an act from Stern, who serves as chairman of the Veterans and Seniors Committee.

“My legislation will not only put a roof over our heroes’ heads, it will also transform unsightly zombie homes into renovated properties that will revitalize housing markets in many of our Long Island communities,” Israel said in a statement. “Whenever we get the opportunity to eliminate two problems with one sustainable solution, we should act on it.”

Israel’s proposal would make grants available to veteran service organizations, non-governmental organizations and homeless organizations. It is intended not only to house homeless veterans but also eliminate blight from neighborhoods, the lawmaker said.

Stern praised Israel’s legislation for helping to ensure “that our military heroes have a place to call home while turning blighted properties into houses fit for heroes.”

According to Stern, he and Israel always saw his act as a model to use at the federal level.

“I’m proud to say we implemented it at a local level,” Stern said in a phone interview. “What we started here is serving as a national model.”

One of the big differences between Stern and Israel’s acts is the funding.

Stern said at the local level, they are utilizing properties the government already owns because of foreclosure. Israel’s legislation doesn’t need to rely on those types of homes because of the funding they receive from grants, so “there is real opportunity for innovation with the spectrum of properties.”

He also said these two bills will complement each other going forward.

Approximately 50,000 homeless veterans are on the streets of the United States every day, including more than 2,500 in New York, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Blighted properties have been an ongoing issue in Huntington Town.

“Huntington residents have been dealing with the zombie home epidemic in our neighborhoods for far too long,” Huntington Councilwoman Tracey Edwards (D) said in a statement.

Edwards said Israel’s legislation would improve both the lives of veterans and the worth of Huntington resident’s homes.

At a press conference announcing Israel’s proposal on Nov. 9, Gina Raio Bitsimis, a Dix Hills resident and zombie home neighbor, thanked Israel for his commitment to tackle this problem.

“Zombie homes aren’t only eyesores in our neighborhood, they are actively reducing the value of our homes that we have worked so hard to maintain,” Bitsimis said in a statement. “My family and I will welcome these brave men and women into our neighborhood with open arms and look forward to the increase of both our quality of life and the value of our property.”

Huntington Councilwoman Susan Berland (D) previously drafted legislation to crack down on blighted properties, and said in a phone interview that the zombie house in Dix Hills, where the press conference was held was the exact house that inspired her to draft an anti-blight act.

“I saw the condition of the house and how it affected the neighbors,” she said. Her legislation includes a point system that determines if a property should be added to the town blight list and enters a restoration agreement with the town.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also said in 2009 that the homeless veteran population was more than 74,000 in a single night and last year more than one in ten of every homeless adult were a veteran.

At the press conference in Dix Hills, members of veteran organizations from Long Island spoke about the necessity of the bill.

“Placing homeless veterans in these homes will give them the opportunity and foundation they need to become independent successful members of our community,” said Frank Amalfitano, director of United Veterans Beacon House.

Beth Gabellini, regional director of Long Island Supportive Services for Veteran Families echoed the sentiment.

“After fighting for our country, veterans deserve every opportunity possible to help get back on their feet and on track,” she said.