On a blustery day, Barbara Scharf, 49, and her two companions -- Toy and Danny -- stationed their blue shopping carts, brimming with plastic bags, on a patch of pavement near a mattress store and auto body shop.

An American flag poked out of Danny's cart.

Their lives are unfurling in the parking lot of the Centereach Mall on Middle Country Road, where they forage for recyclable cans and food from the local restaurants, and sleep behind the corridor of stores.

"A lot of the people . . . here are pretty decent people. They just had bad luck," Scharf said.

She knows about bad luck. Scharf was on disability and living in Selden when she was arrested in 2009 on charges of abusing her dogs. Fighting the charges, she said, cost her her home, and she hit the streets earlier this year because she felt unsafe in shelters.

"I don't want the drinking, the drugs, the problems," she said.

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The Centereach Mall -- located in a working-class community where the per capita income is $33,030 according to the U.S. census -- has become one of Suffolk County's more incongruous homeless encampments.

The ability to use restrooms or to escape the cold is governed by the mood of managers at local stores. Only Kentucky Fried Chicken seems to consistently open its doors to them, Scharf said.

When a local resident, Peter Stelzer, 22, rode up on a bicycle and gave them a $20 bill, a grateful Scharf said excitedly they'd be able to treat themselves to a KFC meal.

"Tonight's going to be the number 12," she said, rattling off the specific food items and price of the deal with ease.

The mall's management says they can stay as long as there are no complaints or disturbances. "We really haven't had any problems," said Robert Ausburn of Kimco Realty.

Scharf said about 10 homeless people live in the area by the mall, a number backed by local institutions that service the homeless.

Last year, an annual street survey of the homeless who live outside the shelter system found 76 people on Suffolk County streets, up from 67 in 2008.

Greta Guarton, director of the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless which did the survey, cited the depressed economy as the top reason for the uptick.

"The tragedy is that many will decline [help]," said Gregory Blass, commissioner of Suffolk's social services department.

Responding to media inquiries, Blass sent representatives to locate the homeless at Centereach Mall.

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The two homeless people found at a food pantry near the mall declined to enter the shelter system, said Blass' spokesman Roland Hampson. Scharf's companions, located on a subsequent visit, also refused help, Hampson said.

"We will persist with our outreach efforts," Blass said in an email, "using every possible approach to meet this virtually intractable challenge, but we will always encounter many in often desperate need who have no interest in . . . any system of programs and services and the rules that go with them."