By Marianna Levine
With a jaw-dropping 13.2 million unemployed people now residing in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it comes as no surprise that more people, including residents of the affluent East End of Long Island, are living homeless and hungry. Thankfully there are many religious and secular organizations eager to help. However, when the make-shift “soup kitchen” at the Southampton Tire Center was shut down by the Village of Southampton last Wednesday, well-meaning citizens realized that a simple desire to help those less fortunate may not be enough.
Helping the needy will take proper planning and leadership, and the situation is urgent, according to artist and Bridgehampton resident Jon Snow.
“My God, this is an emergency,” he exclaimed. “The food pantries can’t keep their shelves stocked.”
And community members of such organizations as the Bridgehampton CAC as well as area churches are concerned it will only get worse in the fall.
Due to increased financial need on the East End, affordable housing advocate Barbara Jordon, with the help of the United Methodist Church of East Hampton, where she is a member, gave a presentation on Maureen’s Haven, a nation-wide program that provides occasional shelter for the homeless, to several members of religious congregations in East Hampton and Sag Harbor last Tuesday night.
Jordan explained the program asks area churches to provide an overnight stay including a hot meal, a place to wash, and other things such as AA meetings, doctor’s visits, and clothes to the area’s homeless during the winter months. People are only allowed into the program after they have been searched and screened for drugs, alcohol, and unstable behavior.
According to Jordan, “There are about 500 homeless people in this area, and many are middle-class people who are working but living in their vehicles. Some may be camping out in the woods or on friends’ sofas.”
With all this in mind she asked area congregations to support her in setting-up a branch of Maureen’s Haven in East Hampton, and possibly Sag Harbor.
Suzanne Preim, a member of Christ Episcopal Church in Sag Harbor attended the meeting with fellow member Kathy Tucker, in order to see how their congregation may help Jordan. Although their church isn’t officially involved yet, the ladies thought their church might help by volunteering their time to such a shelter.
Kathy Montaldo, the coordinator for social ministry and stewardship at St. Andrew’s Catholic Church in Sag Harbor, also went to the presentation.
“[Jordan] certainly lit a light for us here,” she said. “[East Hampton Methodist] can only host people two nights a month, but what about the other 28 nights.”
Montaldo hoped all the religious communities in Sag Harbor will come together to provide something of this sort in the village, noting that Rev. James Cardone, of the Old Whaler’s Church, who also attended, wants to take charge of the effort in Sag Harbor.
Leah Oppenheimer, the Hebrew School teacher at Temple Adas Israel has said the temple is also committed in helping out in anyway they can. The Hebrew School has already provided toys and other essential items to a family in need over the past year.
Linda Dickerson who has been coordinating a Maureen’s Haven at the Southampton Presbyterian Church for the past four years, notes “This year we’ve seen a very big increase in the number of guests we serve. Now we serve between 35-65 people a night.”
She explains about 50 percent of the volunteers who help with the overnight stays are non-church members. Because it takes a lot of money and volunteers to run the program, the church had to stop providing the overnight stays every Saturday and now make it available only every other week despite the increased need.
Not all the good-will and aid is happening through religious organizations. Lorraine Pepper of Sag Harbor has been hosting Saturday afternoon gatherings in order to collect donations for the local food pantry.
Snow, who was one of a group of former Obama for America volunteers who hoped to set up a soup kitchen in Bridgehampton, went so far as to get proper food certification through the Suffolk County Department of Health in order to serve hot food to the hungry. However, he stresses that it was a well-intended yet long and bureaucratic process. He suggests those already in the food industry should handle running some sort of food service for the hungry.
“There ought to be some sort of five East End towns task force for this led by people who are food professionals, and who already have food certification,” he suggested.
Chris Talbot, the Southampton Village Building Inspector who closed down the soup kitchen last week explained despite the tire center’s good intention, the business wasn’t zoned for food service.
“Had McDonald’s or the 7-Eleven wanted to do this there would have been no problem,” said Talbot.
He did note that if anyone wants to do something of this nature, and they don’t know what is required, they should, “Come in and ask us. We are here to help make it easier for people to do the right thing.”
Within the next two weeks, Pastor Jim Cardone of Old Whalers Church is hoping to call and host a meeting of Sag Harbor’s religious and community groups to address the homeless situation in the village itself. He says the homeless situation isn’t really hidden as far as he is concerned.
“As I look out of my office window onto the old cemetery at the end of the day, I can see a few people setting up cardboard shelters and settling in for the night.”