Commack homeless shelter sparks debate

Students work together in a makeshift classroom at

Students work together in a makeshift classroom at a homeless shelter in Commack on Feb. 12, 2014. (Credit: Daniel Brennan)

A Commack homeless shelter that Suffolk County considers a model for the future has sparked a debate about the county's plans to move to a system of larger shelters instead of the smaller residential facilities it has long used.

The shelter, which opened last fall and houses about 100 families in a former hotel, has drawn protests from neighbors who say children from the facility are burdening taxpayers in the Hauppauge school district.

Suffolk Social Services Commissioner John O'Neill says the county is grappling with a growing number of homeless families, and the Commack shelter and a new shelter of similar size in Brentwood save money and provide programs under one roof to help residents get back on their feet and into permanent housing. A third large-scale shelter that houses up to 85 families has operated in Bellport since 1990.

"The department is delivering more services at a lower cost," O'Neill told county legislators last year in pitching the concept of larger shelters.

But Suffolk County Legis. John M. Kennedy Jr. (R-Nesconset), who has introduced legislation that would force the county to close the Commack shelter, cited concerns including "the impact to the school district . . . the remoteness of this facility, its distance from grocery stores [and] the fact that we're driving system-dependent people into overpriced convenience stores for essential needs."

The two-story shelter located in a small industrial park has an "education coordinator" who connects adults with high school equivalency programs, case managers who meet twice a week with residents for counseling on job and housing searches, and a nurse practitioner who provides basic medical care.

Rooms are inspected nightly for cleanliness and order. Residents must provide case managers with weekly logs listing a minimum of 30 calls they have made to inquire about other housing.

For months, critics have crowded into hearings at the Suffolk County Legislature and the school district meetings to complain about the facility's impact on the district. They also argue that the shelter has brought a disproportionate number of the county's homeless to their neighborhood.

The 4,000-student district currently serves 16 children from the shelter. About 90 other students are bused to school districts they attended before their families entered the shelter.

Hauppauge school district Superintendent Patricia Sullivan-Kriss declined to comment for this story.

Kennedy said that by operating larger shelters, Suffolk is violating a 2000 county law limiting the number of families allowed in shelters to 12. The county attorney's office issued an opinion in November, saying state laws requiring counties to provide homeless housing pre-empted county law.

The bill Kennedy has introduced to close the shelter was tabled repeatedly last year, never receiving enough support to be scheduled for a vote.

But Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Shirley) said the county is running out of space in smaller shelters. While smaller facilities "are good because there are not as many families to work with . . . [in] the larger shelters you can have every single service you need in one single building."

Greta Guarton, executive director of the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless in Garden City, said large and small shelters each have "unique advantages."

She said locations "where all the services are brought to the folks can be a tremendous benefit." However, large shelters are more visible to the surrounding community. "There tends to be more community opposition -- children face more stigma," while smaller shelters blend "into the community more, [and] the residents don't feel like they stand out."

Rosemary Dehlow, Long Island Coordinator for Community Housing Innovations, a Huntington Station-based nonprofit that operates the Commack shelter for Suffolk, said the group's "first and foremost goal" is to "stabilize a family and to get them into permanent housing."

On average, it takes families at the shelter three to six months to find housing, Dehlow said.

"The real issue here, the discussion we should all be having, is the lack of affordable housing on Long Island," Dehlow said.

Dehlow cited a federal housing formula that defines affordable housing as costing no more than 30 percent of family annual income. Under those guidelines, an adult making $12.50 an hour can afford to spend about $650 a month for rent, Dehlow said.

Before the Commack and Brentwood shelters opened last fall, the county relied primarily on its network of some 30 small shelters that house up to 12 families. Families also are placed in motels as a last resort. Both options cost Suffolk $80 to $85 per night per family, compared with $55 at the larger shelters.

Suffolk began the move toward larger shelters in the spring in response to growing homeless counts. There are about 565 homeless families in county shelters, up from 431 in 2011, according to the county. Nearly 1,200 of the approximately 2,300 individuals in county shelters are children.

In interviews, residents at the Commack shelter said their biggest hurdle is finding landlords willing to accept payment from government programs. Newsday is not naming the residents at the request of the shelter operators, citing state rules that protect the confidentiality of shelter residents.

A 30-year-old mother of two children, ages 7 and 9, said she became homeless two years ago after a car accident that required multiple spinal surgeries. She lost her job, and while eligible for a monthly county subsidy of $1,125 for rent, she has struggled to find an apartment in that price range. County rules prohibit people receiving rental aid from living in basement or garage apartments that tend to cost less.

"I'm always looking for housing," the mother said. "There's a huge disparity between what is affordable and what we receive. If it was easy, I don't think any of us would be here."

One recent afternoon, her children packed into a meeting with about a dozen other children for one-on-one tutoring from high school volunteers.

"They're just children who want to learn like any other child would," said Jamie Rapfogel, a Syosset mother who coordinates the tutoring with the help of her 16-year-old twin daughters Jessica and Nicole. "They had no choice about how they ended up here."

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