Pictured Above: At the Maureen’s Haven winter shelter program before the pandemic. | Maureen’s Haven photo

Housing insecurity was a huge problem on the East End long before the pandemic began, but Covid-19 has certainly complicated the issue.

As New Yorkers decamped in droves to our quiet rural sanctuary, all the air was sucked out of the already tight rental market, making it easier for landlords to name their prices and squeezing local tenants even further than they’d already been squeezed.

Before the pandemic, the Maureen’s Haven emergency winter homeless shelter program had a complex network of volunteers on board to provide emergency overnight shelter at nearly two dozen houses of worship on both forks.

The onset of the pandemic last spring forced Maureen’s Haven to rethink its shelter program as volunteers and staffers took stock of the reality of the congregate setting that had in the past given so many people hope and purpose, but could now end up spreading the virus.

The shelter, which usually runs through the end of April, instead ran through the end of March 2020, after which the Suffolk County Department of Social Services helped put guests up in temporary housing.

 “We had challenges getting off the ground this year. A lot of sites were unable to host,” said Maureen’s Haven Executive Director Dan O’Shea of the retooled program that began in November.” Sometimes, on the local level, with congregations with aging populations, there was concern among the community. We were lucky to put together the shelter program. So many congregations are still helping out in every way possible, with making meals and helping with donation drives.”

“The shelter program looks a little different. There were 20 or so houses of worship, and every night we would go somewhere else,” he said. “To minimize the risk, we have 10 sites this year, with four or five acting as main host sites. We’re still continuing to operate with a capacity of 30 to 32 people. One of the main challenges this year has been the decrease in the number of people willing to do overnights with us.”

One of the bedrock sites has become St. Agnes R.C. Church in Greenport, which plays host to guests three or four nights per week, along with the Mattituck and Southampton Presbyterian Churches, Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Aquebogue and Temple Adas Israel and Christ Episcopal Church in Sag Harbor.

The John’s Place homeless shelter at St. Agnes in Greenport is also using that location on Tuesday nights.

John’s Place has launched a GoFundMe fundraiser to raise money to replace the roof on the Parish Hall used for the shelter, as well as for heat, water, electricity and gas.

“Every dollar counts! We are very grateful for everything you do to help us,” said Father Piotr Narkiewicz, who organized the fundraiser at www.gofundme.com/f/johns-place-emergency-homeless-shelter.

Maureen’s Haven has hired staff to work the overnight shift at the churches, halved the capacity of the vans it uses to transport guests and hired additional drivers, and is encouraging volunteers to help prepare food off-site to be transported to the shelters.

Previously, there had been 10 or 12 volunteers working in the kitchens at the shelters each night, with four or five greeters at the door to help make guests feel welcome.

“This has been a real challenge on the staff, but I have an amazing staff. They’ve really stepped up,” said Mr. O’Shea. The staff now includes three drivers, two members of the overnight crew, a social worker, bookkeeper, program manager and himself.

Maureen’s Haven also runs a day center year-round at its office in Riverhead, providing warmth, hot meals, and food and clothing to people in need.

“It did not slow down during the summertime,” said Mr. O’Shea. “We had people in need calling for support, and the day center has been steady.”

As far as the winter shelter, “we had a few nights where it’s been little lower [attendance] than we expected, but the number of users has been pretty high,” he said. “If everybody who uses the shelter showed up at once, we would be over-capacity.”

Financial contributions are the best way to help Maureen’s Haven right now, said Mr. O’Shea, adding that donations go directly to programmatic activities like buying food and paying drivers for the shelter.

Non-perishable food, socks, underwear, paper products, and cleaning products are of great use in the shelter, along with personal protective equipment like gloves and facemasks, which Mr. O’Shea said “is like gold for us now.”

He urged anyone who is setting up donation drives to contact Maureen’s Haven first to make sure people are donating things they need.

“Our conference room often explodes with donations, and sometimes we have to go through it and share the stuff we can’t use with another non-profit,” he said. “We could always use help at our shelter sites and at our office.”

The best way to get involved is to visit maureenshaven.org for more information.          —BY

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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