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Hamptons Life

Nov 20, 2014 3:57 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Amid Wealth And Comfort, Homelessness Persists On The East End

Dec 2, 2014 10:23 AM

One recent winter, Bill Link found himself crawling into the back of a Toyota 4Runner that he found among a pile of totaled cars somewhere in East Hampton, trying to escape the bone-chilling cold.

“I felt like I was at the Hyatt,” he said.

The 56-year-old became homeless a few years ago and quickly had to learn how to keep himself warm—by wearing plastic garbage bags, for instance, to seal the body heat in. “You cut a hole in the top of it and stick your head through,” he said. “You don’t cut holes for the arms, but you put one on the bottom and then cover yourself up.”

When he wasn’t lucky enough to discover a makeshift shelter or be warm enough in garbage bags, he’d take the train “all over the place, just to stay warm.” He would hide his few belongings and clothes in secret spots in Montauk and Bridgehampton so he didn’t have to lug everything with him.

When he needed a bath, he either jumped in the ocean or used the showers at the Indian Wells Beach comfort station in Amagansett—at 2 or 3 in the morning.

Mr. Link’s situation is vastly different from the typical image of life in the Hamptons, where wealth is on display and around every corner. Homelessness is really visible only to those who live here year-round, and is mostly an afterthought to those who visit seasonally.

But he is hardly alone.

On Long Island alone at the beginning of this year, more than 3,000 people were homeless, according to the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless, the slim majority being single men and women over the age of 24. Approximately 1,400 of these homeless people were children.

Of the more than 3,000, nearly 2,600 spent some time in emergency shelters, which provide only a temporary overnight place to rest, eat and get help. Almost 600 were in transitional homes, which is typically temporary housing set up to transition residents into permanent, affordable housing. More than 60 people did not have any shelter at all, according to the coalition.

Without A Home

Maureen’s Haven, an organization in Riverhead that provides support and shelter for the homeless, provided shelter for 337 adults from the East End in its overnight shelter program in its 2013-14 season, which ran from November 1 to March 31 at churches and synagogues in Southampton, East Hampton, Riverhead and Southold townships. About 49 to 57 people on average took advantage of a Maureen’s Haven’s shelter each night during the season—typically about 12 women and 38 men.

Tracey Lutz, the organization’s executive director, said that by Thanksgiving, Maureen’s has an average of three new people every day coming in for help.

About 7 to 10 percent of the population that comes to Maureen’s Haven for help are veterans, and the majority are male, Ms. Lutz said, because women often have other options. Women are more likely to find a place to rest their head on people’s couches, and there are shelters that cater to women since they are more likely to be victims of domestic violence.

Ms. Lutz said women face a “whole host” of threats when homeless, including rape, sexual assault, prostitution and homicide.

People as young as 18 have shown up at Maureen’s Haven, and in many cases, it’s because they’ve aged out of foster care, she said.

“Those people, you really want to work quickly with them to get off the street, because if they stay too long, they end up getting into trouble,” Ms. Lutz said.

On The Streets

Out of view, many people who face homelessness and can’t get or don’t seek help take refuge in the woods. All along Route 58 in Riverhead, and on Flanders Road, Montauk Highway in East Hampton, and County Road 39 in Southampton, people pitch tents, build makeshift shelters and store mattresses.

Ms. Lutz said it was mind-boggling to see firsthand the little communities that have been set up along the Long Island Rail Road tracks.

“I spoke to the people that lay the tracks and do line work, and they said, ‘It’s unbelievable what we see,’” she said—adding, from her own experience, “It is nothing compared to what’s back there.”

Mr. Link, who has stayed in the woods himself, said he is familiar with such encampments but never stayed in one himself. “I was all over the woods, in spots that people never walk in, but, you know, it’s scary,” he said.

He said he knows of a location in the woods in Wainscott where someone built a “livable shelter,” and people who knew about it would drop donated food on top of the garbage can near the road.

If not in the woods, some homeless people trespass to find shelter in churches, abandoned or vacant homes or buildings, too.

From time to time, police officers come across or get calls about trespassers who are homeless. East Hampton Town Police Captain Chris Anderson said each case is handled differently, but not much can be done if an individual doesn’t want help.

“When there’s police interaction, right away their radar goes up,” he said. “When there is an authority figure, the assumption is that there’s a problem. It’s always a fine line and juggling act for officers to try and broach the subject in a non-adversarial way.”

He said aside from making referrals or acting when someone’s mental health or well-being is on the line, there’s not a lot the department can do. “There’s no solution in a can or ready-made solution to deal with the problem,” he said. “It’s a chosen way of life for some of these people. Many of them prefer to live that way, kind of anonymously.”

Mr. Link, like many others, lived in his own vehicle—a silver pickup truck—for a while before it was impounded. He would park at baseball fields and other municipal parking lots, but eventually he was told by police not to park there. At the end of the truck’s life, a fire blew out the truck’s wiring. He had been lighting candles inside the cab to keep warm.

“It was trouble for me anyway,” he said.

What Drives Them

It’s often said that people who are homeless choose that life, and while it may be true for some, most people have no choice in the matter, either because of their finances or a series of tragedies and other unforeseen troubles.

At a recent Maureen’s Haven emergency shelter at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Hampton Bays, Richard, who didn’t provide his last name, said he had been living paycheck to paycheck and then lost his job. Not being able to find any full-time work, he said, he couldn’t afford housing. So now he jumps from one shelter to another.

He said Suffolk County’s Department of Social Services housing is very iffy, too—20 guys can live in one house, with four to five men to one bedroom. The Department of Social Services’ emergency housing isn’t always available either. “If there’s no bed, you’re out of luck,” he said.

Richard’s situation is not unique at all. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, foreclosure, poverty, eroding work opportunities, fewer public benefits and a lack of affordable housing can all contribute to homelessness.

Ms. Lutz said the number of single adults who are homeless is growing, and she attributes that to the continued lack of affordable housing.

A man in his 70s, who had been living on Social Security and his savings, as well as some money he earned by teaching piano lessons, came to Maureen’s Haven for help, Ms. Lutz said. When the economy took a dip and his savings ran out, he could no longer afford an apartment and had nowhere to go.

She also said a big contributing factor to homelessness could lie in the lack of mental health programs. When people can’t take care of their mental illnesses, they’re more likely to get into trouble.

At an East End Disabilities Group mental health forum last week, Edna Steck, the former East Hampton Town director of human services, said there needs to be a greater focus on educating the community about what to look for and what the resources are when a person really needs mental health help.

“We have homeless people in town who also have mental illness,” she said. “Short of being arrested for trespassing because they sleep in someone’s house or in their cars, there’s no way of reaching them or engaging them in some way. A lot of them resist getting help, those who don’t take their medication.”

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, approximately 16 percent of the nation’s single adult homeless population suffers from some form of severe and persistent mental illness.

Mr. Link is bipolar and admits that he didn’t take his medications for a while. In his bouts of mania, an extreme emotional high, he had a lot of energy and felt as if being homeless made him happy. He said once he went without sleep for five days.

“I had no responsibility but to try to take care of myself,” he said. “That’s why I liked it. Amazingly enough, even though I lived a rough life, I started to become so happy. That was part of it—mental illness. My mania’s energy was off the books.”

Originally, he decided to leave home after a severe depression washed over him, and he felt his family, his wife and son would be better off without him.

“It wasn’t anybody’s fault about what happened,” he said.

He held a series of jobs in his life, he said, including as a caretaker for Paul Simon, later at a union in the city, as a caretaker with Catholic Home Care, and as an electrician for East Hampton Town for seven years.

He said he is on his medication now and is improving. He currently lives at the Community Housing Innovation shelter in Riverhead. “Even though it sounds bad, I’m in a better place than I used to be,” he said.

A Better Place

On November 14, the Maureen’s Haven’s emergency shelter at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Hampton Bays took in 20 people, who, after unloading from a Maureen’s Haven van, filed into the church’s center and signed in, some smiling as they were greeted and others looking as if they were just relieved to be there and get some food.

Just before dinner was served, the Reverend Eric Rey of the Hampton Bays Assembly of God Church, which was playing host for the night with 35 volunteers, said a prayer, asking God to bless the people and be there in their midst.

Rev. Rey said that night Maureen’s Haven and the outreach the 60 churches and synagogues do each winter is about showing “everybody grace in a practical way.” He said it’s the little things that matter the most.

That night, the volunteers served the homeless not only by providing dinner, which included pulled pork, but by giving free haircuts and manicures, providing entertainment with singing, and providing shoes, coats and other clothing for free. After dinner, too, Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous circles and Bible studies were held for those who needed it.

“They’re very safe here,” said Denise Foley, the Assembly of God’s church director, who coordinates the outreach. “There’s a lot of need, and you don’t see it. This is my heart.”

Maureen’s Haven works with its clients to find housing and employment as well so one day they won’t need to rely on the organization for help.

Mr. Link said last year he went to three Maureen’s Haven shelters and that he is now waiting for a more permanent place.

He said he didn’t even want to talk about his situation with most of his brother and sisters, who live up-island, because “it was embarrassing,” but he finally got help last year after Thanksgiving when his family pushed him to get it.

“I don’t want to say that this is coming up to the end, but I’m coming to my goal to be placed permanently in Mastic-Shirley,” he said about his time in transitional housing. “I plan to go out and look for a job and rely on public transportation.”

As for his family, he still has hopes to put together the broken pieces he left behind when he left home. But he knows it’s going to be an uphill battle.

“I want to be a good father,” he said. “But I don’t know if I’ll ever be.”

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There are a lot of homeless people in Florida coincidentally but a little empathy wouldn't hurt Marlinspike. It can happen to anyone, even you or me.
By lirider (288), Westhampton Beach on Nov 26, 14 11:43 AM
This article is eerily familiar to one that was printed in August in the Sag Harbor Express. I saw it shared heavily on Facebook - google "Homeless in the Hamptons." They literally interviewed the same two main sources, Bill and Tracey Lutz from Maureen's Haven.

Aren't there enough social issues going on on the East End that the Press doesn't have to write the exact same stories that were written by another paper in the same community three months ago?
By EastEndResident (1), East Hampton on Nov 26, 14 2:18 PM
Hard times can fall on anyone. Compassion for your neighbors is essential. A can of food given at a local food drive, spare change in a bucket at check out. Doesn't have to be much. At the very least kindness, you never know what personal battles someone else is fighting.
By Polandspring (96), Southampton on Nov 26, 14 8:45 PM
1 member liked this comment
homeless in Fla have problems also,
By EastEnd68 (888), Westhampton on Nov 27, 14 9:50 AM
Ah yes. Reminds me of the "invisible poor" back in the days of the "good life"...
By Mr. Z (11704), North Sea on Nov 28, 14 1:20 AM
a few years ago I purchased several turkeys with the King Kullen sale price when your receipt was at or over a certain amount. I also purchased about ten bags of stuffing, canned veggies, rice, beans, potatoes, cereals, fruits, breads, canned hams and much more which I took to the food pantry in Sag Harbor. While carrying in several bags I noticed a family walking out with many bags in tow. I came out very quickly and found that same family taking turkeys out of my car, popping the truck of their ...more
By xtiego (698), bridgehampton on Nov 29, 14 5:42 PM
Thanks for that stupid story xtiego. Maybe you scared people from giving to food banks. Just send a check to a food bank they will put the money to the right place. Don't let xiego scare you with his negative story.
By chief1 (2791), southampton on Nov 29, 14 8:02 PM
n 1974, an obscure economist scribbled some thoughts on a napkin that served as the engine for the most influential presidency of the past three and a half decades and the most unequal economy America has experienced since the Great Depression.

The napkin notes, written by Arthur Laffer and later embraced by Ronald Reagan, contained a figure illustrating the logic of "supply-side" economics, which translates to lowering taxes and regulations on corporations and the affluent in order to ...more
Nov 29, 14 11:06 PM appended by Mr. Z
7 Charts Show What Free Market Economics Have Really Brought on America. By Zeeshan Aleem, November 20, 2014
By Mr. Z (11704), North Sea on Nov 29, 14 11:06 PM
1 member liked this comment
Then maybe minimum wage which hasn't been properly adjusted in over 20 years should be raised, and then working should be worth more than public assistance. There would be some incentive. How about the people who are training for better jobs that receive public assistance while "not working"? Or putting some teeth on how "work" is defined? We need "Workfare", not welfare. That is true. What we really don't need is economic policy which creates the need for it.

Poverty wages, lead to ...more
By Mr. Z (11704), North Sea on Nov 30, 14 10:41 AM
The minimum wage gets adjusted upward every day. Whenan employee makes themselves indispensable or raises their own productivity they are worth more and employers try to retain them - with raises. Most minimum wage workers are suburban teenagers with no work experience (and sometimes poor role models at home). Hiring minimum wage workers frequently implies the employer will be providing training, even if only that getting to work on time and following instructions is mandatory. Yes some folks ...more
By Funbeer (273), Southampton on Dec 5, 14 12:56 AM
The biggest misconception that raising the minimum wage cuts into entry level jobs. Corporate america hires just enough workers to get the job done. They can't cut jobs to any leaner then they have it now. Do you ever walk into a business that minimum wage workers prevail and say they have to much help here.
By Mets fan (1493), Southampton on Dec 8, 14 4:11 PM
1 member liked this comment
I started this many years ago. I no longer buy gifts for family and friends. I take that money and send it to charities such as Maureen's Haven, local food pantries and churches that feed the homeless. I ask all others who would normally buy me gifts to do the same. The only exception are my grand kids. I am in no means well off, but still feel the need to help the less fortunate. Even though you may not no them they are human beings who have fallen on tough times. Treat others as you would like ...more
By pcone (28), hampton bays on Nov 30, 14 8:34 AM
to Captn America:

Quote:

"Because, like feeding logs to a fire, if you pay people to not work, they're going to make unemployment a career."
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Will the extreme Right-Wing never tire of trotting out rationalizations for its psychopathological meanness?

Bogus, insupportable, self-serving nonsense like this makes up the entire Right-Wing canon of belief. ...more
By highhatsize (4187), East Quogue on Nov 30, 14 10:46 AM
1 member liked this comment
to Captn America:

["meow"]
By highhatsize (4187), East Quogue on Nov 30, 14 7:23 PM
Capt - I agree. Let's get rid of the entitlements. Problem is that when Republicans say this what they mean is "Let's get rid of entitlements for the poor." I say let's start at the top and get rid of the entitlements for the super wealthy and corporations followed by the rich and then the affluent. Once all that is done we can work on getting rid of the entitlements for the poor which mostly just trap people in poverty and fill the coffers of people like Rev Al.
By bird (824), Southampton on Dec 2, 14 9:24 AM
So, you finally admit the "wealthy" are entitled. What happened? Satan get hit with a snowball?
By Mr. Z (11704), North Sea on Dec 2, 14 11:59 AM
"but, both party's bear the responsibility for entitlements of the wealthy."

Agreed.
By bird (824), Southampton on Dec 2, 14 8:27 PM
I don't like folks who talk about something they have never experienced, know nothing about yet condemn sight unseen. Very sad attitude!
By summertime (589), summerfield fl on Dec 2, 14 5:37 PM
I don't like folks who talk about something they have never experienced, know nothing about yet condemn sight unseen. Very sad attitude!
By summertime (589), summerfield fl on Dec 2, 14 5:37 PM
This comment has been removed because it is a duplicate, off-topic or contains inappropriate content.
By xtiego (698), bridgehampton on Dec 2, 14 5:50 PM
In there an area that would not offend locals that a homeless shelter can be built and run by people in that business?
By Summer Resident (250), Southampton N.Y. on Dec 7, 14 1:08 AM