Providing a Haven Through Difficult Times
By Gianna Volpe
The decision to donate time, money or goods is one driven by dozens of factors including faith, feelings and even facts.
Researchers now link the choice to include charity in one’s family or personal practices with increased mental and physical well-being, so there’s hope those who have long lived like Ebenezer Scrooge—minus the matching revelation—may just learn to exercise their under-powered heart this winter.
The Maureen’s Haven Homeless Outreach Program has been feeding, sheltering and supporting one of Long Island’s most vulnerable populations for decades. Most recently, the Riverhead non-profit organization has been working alongside the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development to find permanent placement for the “chronically homeless” — half of their cases — which includes the “persistently and pervasively mentally ill,” as well as those suffering with substance abuse issues, while the organization itself serves as a “perfect model of subsidiarity,” according to interim executive direction Maryann Gensler.
“We’re trying to open up more churches in Center Moriches—maybe not under Maureen’s Haven, but another name,” Gensler said from her office at the Lincoln Street Day Center, which opened in 2012. “We’ve helped other organizations get started…and are working in cooperation with the Family Service League by offering them technical assistance to provide services to the Mastic/Shirley area. No other churches have signed up yet, but it’s in discussion.”
Since 2002, Maureen’s Haven Outreach Program has succeeded in opening doors and hearts at roughly 20 East End houses of faith with a rotating five-night shelter program that helps keep people like 30-year-old Bryan Normoyle off the streets between November and April.
I met Normoyle after interviewing Gensler on October 21.
Despite being shy and a bit skittish, Normoyle seemed grateful to explain the importance of Maureen’s Haven, citing “dessert” as the best part of the winter shelter program because “they have brownies and juice, then we get to watch TV or go outside and smoke cigarettes.”
“[Being homeless] is not that bad—It’s only bad [when it gets so cold] that you probably look for awkward, like, prostitution, or some kind of way to make money or do something to get off the street,” he added
Normoyle’s perspective explains why Gensler answered my question about quantifying the winter shelter program’s ability to “make a difference” by specifying that the offered program is rather an “immediate, concrete need” not to be ignored.
Sister Maureen would have agreed in spades. The organization’s namesake, Dominican Sister Maureen Michael — who died in 1997 before her vision became a reality — initially envisioned the shelter program after a local man froze to death in front of the Salvation Army decades ago.
The organization doesn’t just ask members of religious institutions to put their beliefs to work, it’s been successful in helping educate congregations about the reality of homelessness, and has ultimately benefitted many an East End ministry, according to Linda-Love Ryan at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Aquebogue.
“At the very beginning, some of our church members—especially our Elders—were like, ‘If a homeless person can have a pack of cigarettes or a cell phone, then why can’t they have a home,’ because they don’t realize how truly difficult it can be to [transcend homelessness],” said Love-Ryan, an instrumental advocate for Maureen’s Haven at Our Redeemer, which first opened its doors as a host site seven years ago after three years of involvement with the program.
“As the years went by, [the Elders would see the guests] at the church helping make the sandwiches every week and they realized these are real people. Some of them are just down on their luck and others are young people who cannot afford a home, even if they have a job.”
Love-Ryan said her own experience growing up in a family with multiple alcohol abuse issues resulting in the loss of her childhood home in Massachusetts gave her first-hand experience understanding the impact a shelter can have on folks in need, and also how varied circumstances can be for those in vulnerable situations.
“I’ve always understood that people have problems and you can’t look at it as they’re no good; you have to look at it as how can I help them feel better,” she said.
Love-Ryan’s compassion—coupled with the organization’s reported effect on volunteers is best described as infectious—it certainly has been for Our Redeemer Elder, Don Bracken Jr., who began the One Guitar concert series benefiting Maureen’s Haven two years ago.
“I would recommend people—if they belong to a church [or other house of worship]—to urge their church to become involved in one of the homeless programs like Maureen’s Haven because the more hands we can get the better and easier it is to do the work,” said Bracken. “We’re always looking for somebody to prepare food for the dinners, to sleep overnight, be in charge on site and also to socialize with the guests.”
Bracken said those who become involved in the program quickly learn to forget fears regarding violence or mental instability as Maureen’s Haven screens guests —a group of individuals he described as grateful and self-policing—before delivering them to host churches each evening.
Love-Ryan said outside two medical emergencies, the police haven’t needed to be called in all seven years Our Redeemer has hosted the shelter program, but gave gratitude to the Riverhead Police Department for making the location part of their patrol and called local security guard and overnight volunteer Robin Schuman, “a blessing” for Our Redeemer.
Love-Ryan said Schuman doesn’t just currently serve as her “overnight guy” following his shifts at the Riverhead Aquarium, he also assists with the Sunday morning breakfast and clean-up, as well as helping to set-up the program before he heads into work.
Anyone who remains uncomfortable with volunteering their time can call Maureen’s Haven at (631) 727-6831 to donate money to the organization or identify the nearest location for bringing items like clean clothing, coats, boots, socks and underwear, as well as non-perishable food items like peanut butter and jelly, which host sites are often running low on by February.
“You don’t want to give money straight to the people because you don’t know their situation; but one Christmas we bought all the guests big warm, socks stuffed with $5 Dunkin’ Donuts gift cards,” said Love-Ryan, adding one group of ladies also annually knits hats and scarves for the guests.
Monetary donations to the organization are encouraged in regard to supporting the Maureen’s Haven Homeless Outreach Program itself.
“We get so many donations of clothing and we always need socks and underwear because I can say, ‘Oh we’re good,’ and then all of a sudden we could get pounded and everything could be gone, but our problem is we don’t have a whole lot of storage and this is a very expensive program to run,” said Gensler, who cited paying drivers, case workers and other personnel among their expenses.
The interim executive director gave high praise to houses of faith— from Montauk to Greenport — that have participated in the program. They include the Christ Episcopal Church in Sag Harbor, which hosts the organization alongside Temple Adas Israel, the East Hampton United Methodist Church, the First Presbyterian Church in Southampton, the First Presbyterian and First Universalist churches in Southold, the Jewish Center of the Hamptons, Saint Therese Roman Catholic Church in Montauk, and Our Redeemer in Aquebogue, along with many others.
The feeling of praise is mutual for leaders in faith such as Love-Ryan, who touted program expansion.
“In the beginning they would have one church host per night, but they’ve been able to get more churches to open up,” she said. “That way if you get 60 people at one church, you can accommodate 15 more at another church, which has been a blessing that happened when East Hampton and other churches at the very end of the South Fork got involved as overflow churches. The fire department has confirmed us for 55, but that’s putting people on top of each other. We try to keep our maximum at 40, but in blizzards there’s been times where we’ve shifted to 24-hour service because we’re centrally located in Riverhead town.”
Call Maureen’s Haven at (631) 727-6831 or visit maureenshaven.org to find out how you can help out this winter.
For more about the One Guitar project, just, visit maureenshaven.bandcamp.com.