A muddy trail leads over a berm and into the woods just west of Good Ground Cemetery in Hampton Bays. Strewn with debris — a beer can, a takeout food container, a leaf-covered drop cloth — the footpath continues over fallen trees.
About 75 feet into the woods, and tucked into the understory, are sticks holding up tarps that craft a makeshift shelter.
On Monday afternoon, under gray skies, it was 39 degrees, with a chilly drizzle falling. Snow blanketed the hamlet later that night. No one was “home,” but, according to local residents, the woods surrounding Hampton Bays are home — of sorts — to a population of individuals whom police call “undomiciled.”
Members of the Hampton Bays Citizens Advisory Committee and Hampton Bays Civic Association both expressed concern about their hamlet’s homeless population at their November meetings.
CAC member Irene Anthony raised the topic at the November 21 meeting, offering thanks to Southampton Town officials for “cleaning up and cleaning out” the property behind the Methodist Thrift Shop on Cemetery Road — where a makeshift “camp” had been set up by a group of homeless people.
“It was getting to be a lot of people living there,” she said. “And the debris was disgusting … People had actually set up cots out there, using all sorts of things as toilets. It was beyond disgusting.”
Ms. Anthony described the camp as “an eyesore,” with people living in the woods just 15 feet away from Main Street shops: “It was completely out of hand.”
While that camp was cleared out, CAC member Mary Pazan said there were still people living near the Good Ground Cemetery; near Macy’s department store, behind the clothing donation bins; and behind the Wild By Nature store. There’s been an encampment in the latter spot for over 20 years, it was noted.
CAC member Thea Fry spoke of men walking around the parking lot at King Kullen. Some have criminal records, and some try to accost people, she said.
At the Civic Association meeting on November 25, an audience member spoke of a camp behind the now-vacant Hampton Bays Diner on Montauk Highway, alongside the railroad tracks.
At the CAC meeting, Southampton Town Board member Julie Lofstad pointed out that when police or code enforcement officers move an encampment, the inhabitants are left with no place to go. Police offer them services, she said: “Unfortunately, some people don’t want the help.”
Social service agencies and homeless programs, like Maureen’s Haven, reach out, she said, but some people refuse the aid. She said she knows one man who, when he is drinking, “doesn’t want to stay inside. It’s very sad.”
Ms. Anthony said three of the men who were living near the Methodist Church all have families who would take them in — if they would stop drinking. “But they won’t,” she said. “They just refuse the help. So, there they are.”
Ms. Fry guessed that as many as 100 people are living in the woods around Hampton Bays. It’s not just in Hampton Bays, she pointed out: There’s a population living in the Southampton train station, she said. “There’s eight or 10 people sleeping in there,” she said. “They’re doing crack right in the bathroom … you can’t even go in there now.
“This is nothing new — people used to live on the beach year-round if they could,” Ms. Fry continued. “It’s nothing new, but we’re seeing it more.”
CAC member Gayle Lombardi is a volunteer at Maureen’s Haven, which has a day center in Riverhead and also works with area churches to provide homeless people with a hot meal and a warm place to sleep during the winter.
Twelve area churches participate in the winter program, offering overnight shelter to homeless individuals. In Hampton Bays, three churches — St. Rosalie’s, the Assembly of God and the Methodist Church — offer space on different nights for homeless people to sleep. In Quogue, the Lutheran Church is among those providing a warm place to sleep, she said.
The day center is a full-service facility where guests can receive case management and support services, but it’s located in Riverhead, and, Ms. Lofstad said, some Hampton Bays people don’t want to leave the hamlet. because they don’t know how they’ll get back home.
Asked how the town helps, Ms. Lofstad explained that police and code enforcement officers reach out to service providers for the homeless they encounter. Suffolk County Department of Social Services takes the lead with homeless outreach.
She said the Town Police’s Community Response Unit will be stepping up patrols, particularly near King Kullen. But those are short-term solutions. “Band-Aids,” Ms. Pazan said.
The idea of creating a shelter in Hampton Bays was broached once, Ms. Anthony said. “I don’t know how I’d feel about having a homeless shelter here in Hampton Bays,” she said. “I’d vote ‘no.’”
Liz Hook, however, emphasized, “They’re citizens as well.”
“To understand each one’s life story, each one has a different problem and needs individual care from trained professionals,” Ms. Lombardi pointed out.
Ray D’Angelo observed that sometimes those who come into the senior center have a drug problem, and the center is “not set up for that.” He agreed that there are individuals who don’t want to be helped.
“There isn’t a single town in the United States that doesn’t have an issue with homelessness and addiction,” Ms. Fry said.
Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said he empathized with the predicament that members of the homeless population finds themselves in.
“That could be you, that could be me,” he said. “I want it to go away, too, because I feel terrible for these people who are living in the woods. They need a roof over their heads, and they need a meal to eat.”