By Emily J Weitz
What would you do if when you walked out of a movie on a chilly winter evening, you found a homeless man slumped in the doorway, hiding from the cold? Would you offer him a dollar, or a blanket, or a place to stay?
These are questions that those who have lived in the city know all too well. But here on the East End, it’s much easier to believe that homelessness is not an issue. You don’t see wheelchairs parked outside 7-Eleven with people sleeping beside them. You don’t get hit up for a quarter every time you set foot on Main Street. But that doesn’t mean the problem isn’t there.
The homeless population on the East End is significant — an estimated 400 to 500 people are currently living out of their cars or in the woods. And as the nights get longer and colder, these people need the help of their community if they’re going to survive. Maureen’s Haven, an East End organization devoted to serving the community’s homeless, invites people to spend the night in a place that’s safe, warm, and just as important, dignified.
Maureen’s Haven was founded in 2002 by Kay Kidde, who financially supported the effort on her own at first. Since then it has grown into a non-profit that offers housing to the homeless on both forks of the East End seven nights a week during the coldest months of the year, from November 1 through March 1. There are 14 host houses of worship across the East End that serve as temporary accommodations for guests. Every day, while many of us are driving by obliviously, people congregate at the railroad stations in Riverhead, East Hampton, Hampton Bays, and Montauk. There they are screened for behavior and drug and alcohol use. Then they’re shuttled to the host place for the evening, where they’re provided with a warm meal prepared by volunteers. After sleeping over, they get breakfast and a bagged lunch to take on their way.
“It’s important to have tolerance towards people who are homeless,” says Tracey Lutz, Program Director of Maureen’s Haven. “It’s not just people who have drug or alcohol problems or who are criminals. Some people have just hit on hard times.”
The philosophy of this organization is rooted in respect and Lutz notes this respect is evident in the quality of the services the guests receive, such as the meals carefully prepared meals. Lutz calls a recent dinner “Lovely. We walked into the church and there were no paper plates. There was regular dinnerware with silverware and candles. It was like walking into a restaurant.” Guests sit together, with volunteers and staff, and eat. They share their stories. They make connections.
Father Shawn Williams, of Christ Episcopal Church in Sag Harbor, recalls the first time his parish hosted Maureen’s Haven last year.
“We slept on air mattresses on floors with the guys that were there. You realize that there is a lot more of a homeless population you might have ever thought,” says Williams. “I have never failed to find that people in this situation are unfailingly polite. They really do appreciate when people extend themselves for them. I don’t know if people always have that expectation.”
Williams remembers waking up in the morning “at an ungodly hour,” beside a man who “had been a little cranky… But he knew what he had to do and he had his routine. I kept thinking about this guy having to make sure everything was in order for that day, making sure he could get someplace where it wasn’t too cold. This guy has been reduced to this small amount of stuff. It really nails you … It’s a lot of work just living.”
It begs the question: between breakfast at one church and dinner at the next, where do these people go?
“Some of them work full time jobs,” says Lutz. “They just still don’t get paid enough to put a roof over their heads.”
Others are day laborers, and some attend programs for mental health issues.
“One lady spends a lot of time on the bus,” says Lutz. “She’ll do the Montauk to Orient loop and back. That’ll take up a day. Others will go to McDonalds and buy a cup of coffee and sit for two hours reading the paper. Holidays are the hardest time for our guests because everything’s closed and they have nowhere to go.”
That’s why on Christmas Eve, the doors of the hosting church will open early, at 1 p.m. That evening, guests will join the congregation to watch the Christmas play and celebrate the holiday. Lutz notes that because Maureen’s Haven is known as a safe haven for the homeless, a real community has developed around it.
“We have a core group of regulars and we are their extended family,” says Lutz. “Some of our guests, when asked to list the next of kin in case of emergency, list us.”
And , she adds, they unite with one another as well.
“There was a woman in the program who was diagnosed with terminal cancer,” says Lutz. “Everyone took care of her in her final days. They made sure she had a permanent place to stay the last weeks of her life. Everyone chipped in and gave her a proper funeral. That’s what happens in the program. You get connected to them.”
Volunteers make the work of Maureen’s Haven possible, and many parishioners at the participating church have jumped in to lend a hand.
“There were people in my congregation up to 80 years old, plus teens helping set up,” says Father Williams. “I don’t think there was a single person who didn’t appreciate the opportunity to be of help to people, or who didn’t grasp what it was they were seeing. Given the chance, most people do want to help.”
Tracey Lutz agrees.
“It’s remarkable how people come together as a group to do something so loving and caring,” she says. “Without the volunteers we have, we’d never be able to offer this service. We have 1,500 volunteers who take the time to make meals and treat their fellow human beings with love and care, which is just a beautiful thing.”
The shelter service is only one part of what Maureen’s Haven does. There’s also the HOPE line, which is a walk-in center and hotline number (1-877-727-6820) that people who are homeless or on the verge of homelessness can use as a resource for assistance in securing housing or jobs. And then there’s an achievement center, located in Riverhead, where individuals can get help with their GEDs, job applications, and resume writing. They can even get appropriate clothes to wear in preparation for interviews.