Sister Aimee Koonmen’s decadeslong mission is rooted in a Christmas message: providing shelter to the homeless — the problem confronted by Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus in the lowly stable after his birth in Bethlehem some 2,000 years ago.
“The first human problem that Jesus experienced on this earth was homelessness,” Koonmen said. “Mary and Joseph provided what they could, but there was no room at the inn. So they clothed him and fed him, but they were unable to really shelter him. And so many of our children now are in similar situations.”
Forty years ago, Koonmen, along with two other Dominican Sisters of Amityville, opened a home in Roosevelt for those with no place to go. Over the decades, Bethany House has grown to encompass five facilities that have helped thousands of people find shelter and hope.
Koonmen, 75, has lived in the houses with the homeless for all 40 years.
This Christmas is the last one she will celebrate as head of the network, a not-for-profit organization supported by federal funds and donations. She is preparing to turn over the day-to-day leadership to a new executive director, though she will continue as chief executive officer.
“I feel I’ve been very blessed that our Dominican Congregation has let me work here,” Koonmen said. “It’s time for someone else to take the reins and bring the vision and continue the charism that we’ve developed.”
Koonmen and Bethany House’s paid staff, along with dozens of volunteers, run the homes in Roosevelt, Baldwin and Bellmore, offering short-term and longer-term shelter to women and children. Residents say the facilities foster a family environment, and they credit Koonmen with helping them turn their lives around.
“I really just don’t know where I would be today if it wasn’t for Bethany House,” said Nicole Grant, 28, of Uniondale.
She said she became homeless just two weeks after the birth of her second child in September 2014. She shuttled among relatives, friends, hotels — until her money ran out — and sometimes slept in her car with her children.
“I would be so scared when night came,” she said, and recalled one of her uppermost thoughts at the time: “Where are we going to sleep tonight?”
She and her children, then ages 2 and 6, moved into Bethany House in Baldwin in July 2016. That October they transferred to an apartment in another facility the group runs in Bellmore. Today she is back working — she is a process server, delivering subpoenas and summonses to people — and is off of government assistance and feeling hopeful.
Koonmen “is like a godsend,” Grant said. “She’s just a blessing.”
Koonmen’s mission started one night in 1978 when she and another nun living in the convent at Queen of the Most Holy Rosary Roman Catholic Church in Roosevelt were awakened by the light of a blazing fire at a nearby home.
They went to ask how they could help. One of the firefighters responded by saying, “Well, you could take this family and give them shelter,” she recalled.
After the fire, Koonmen and two other religious sisters rented a small house in Roosevelt for $275 a month, moved in, and opened it to the homeless.
From the start, they called the project Bethany House, named for the biblical village where Martha and Mary took care of a variety of Jesus’ needs, including food and emotional support. In 1981, the sisters bought a house in Roosevelt from which to run their operation.
Managing the shelter was an unusual assignment for a nun in those days, because most religious sisters worked in schools or hospitals. But it also was typical of the types of changes gradually being ushered in by the 1960s Vatican II reforms of the Catholic Church that expanded nuns’ traditional roles. To help bring an expertise to her work, Koonmen earned a master’s degree in social work from Fordham University in 1989.
Over the years, the enterprise kept growing. Today it has a $1.9 million annual budget, more than 30 employees and the capacity to house up to 85 people a night.
Last year, Bethany House provided some 400 families with shelter during 26,000 nights, a figure drawn from the number of people served and the number of nights each one stayed, Koonmen said.
Stays at Bethany range from one night to one year, with most women remaining for four to six months, she said. In addition to three emergency shelter locations, the group has a building with four apartments where women and their children can transition from homelessness to permanent housing. A fifth facility is for women older than 55.
Bethany House gets about 60 percent of its funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, money that is distributed through the Nassau County Department of Social Services. The rest is raised through donations and grants.
One donor, Bob Jesberger, owner of Mid-Island Collision in Rockville Centre, described Bethany House as “a very special place. It’s Godly. I call it holy ground.”
The organization needs outside help to survive, he said, and he has tried to do that by sending workers to renovate some of the facilities. Jesberger also paid about $8,000 for a rental car for Grant for the last six or seven months, so she could work. On Friday he donated a refurbished Ford SUV to her along with $2,500 to pay for insurance and some gas for the next two years.
With the early Christmas gift, Grant said Friday, “I know next year is going to be magical.”
Grant and other residents say they are deeply grateful for all the help. They say they are amazed by the home-like environments of the Bethany House facilities, as well as their warmth, safety and cleanliness. Bethany House “was better than any house I have ever lived in,” Grant said.
Among the resources for the women are workshops on everything from finding a job to building self-esteem. Residents have responsibilities, such as washing the dishes and keeping their rooms in order. The women also are required by Social Services to be either working, studying or enrolled in the County Work Experience Program, which trains them for a job.
Koonmen plans to step down as executive director by March and leave the day-to-day running of the organization to a new director. She and others are in the midst of interviewing candidates.
About a week before Christmas, she took part in her final tree-trimming event as executive director at the Bethany House in Baldwin, where she lives.
She said she has never tired of living with families who struggle with homelessness, and that Bethany’s work is part of what Christianity — and the Christmas message — is all about.
The best part about living in one of the homes “is it keeps you in close contact with the homeless and with the young, the children. It is so enlivening,” Koonmen said.
“Being a kind of innkeeper is what we are called to.”