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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Homeless no longer welcome in Huntington Station woods

An unidentified man forces homeless day laborers out

An unidentified man forces homeless day laborers out of a Huntington Station forest, where the homeless men had built tent homes. A crew of workers tore the tents down. (Jan. 11, 2010) Credit: James Carbone

They called it la montaña, the mountain. That's because the verdant woods, which extend along Fifth Avenue in Huntington Station, almost all the way down to Park Avenue, reminded them of home.

Monday, the fewer than a dozen men who called la montaña home were forced to leave. They said they awoke, or returned from sleeping in a warm church, to find that they were not welcome.

At 9:30 a.m., the sound of buzz saws droned in the air. Reporters were ordered out of the makeshift community, in which some tents hung on heavy branches.

For almost a week, the saga of la montaña and the men who spend their time there in the bitter winter cold has been news. But the community, which has been a temporary home to many working men, is - was - more than it seemed.

More than 15 years ago, a small group of men from El Salvador threw up a makeshift tent and made it their own. Over the years, according to residents who have worked with the men, the group had a changing membership, reaching a peak of 25 to 30. The Salvadorans were joined by men from Honduras, along with a few from Mexico and, from time to time, even Long Islanders down on their luck.

"It was an open secret," said former Suffolk County Legis. Paul Tonna, who, two years ago, drove a van that picked up men from la montaña on cold nights and dropped them off for a warm meal and a bed at a local church or synagogue as part of Huntington's Interfaith Homeless Initiative.

In the morning, the men would get breakfast, a bagged lunch, toiletries and warm clothing before being dropped back. Since 2005, the program, which concentrates on humanity rather than immigration status, has been a necessary lifeline for Huntington's homeless.

On Sunday, most of the men - the few who had refused to leave last week after the Town of Huntington warned the site was unsafe - went to a local church to sleep. They returned to find their possessions in piles and tenting being torn down.

"We told the owner to clean up debris on the site," A.J. Carter, a town spokesman, said Monday. "We didn't say take the tents down. We didn't say clear everything out."

But the men working on the site did.

And so it was that when Jose, who did not want his last name printed, returned to la montaña - after a 5 a.m. trek to the hiring center on Depot Road in an unsuccessful attempt to get a job - found all of his belongings, including his clothes, blankets and a bag of recycled cans he had gathered to turn in for money, were gone.

"All I have is what I have here," he said. And what he had wasn't enough to keep him warm in the hours before the van takes him to a warm church.

Meanwhile, back at la montaña, a group of men sat around a fire, waiting for a chicken to cook. It was to be an elegant meal. Usually, the men just scramble eggs and beans, in a pan on a makeshift, shopping-cart grill. "It was half-cooked when they told us we had to leave," said David, who did not want his last name used. "I grabbed a couple of pieces and left."

By noon, the few men left gathered, shivering, outside Manor Field, where the Family Service League's facility was closed due to frozen pipes.

At one point, Jerry Ferrari, a retired Suffolk County police officer from Huntington, drove up with sleeping bags. And warm gloves. "There are no easy answers, no easy solutions for what is going on. But you have to feel compassion," he said.

By late afternoon, two men from la montaña predicted that they would be able to go back to their mountain, again, soon. Back to the place where a man lucky enough to find work would leave and gift his tent and his blankets to the next man down on his luck.

But time is running out for la montaña.

There are plans in the works to develop the property.

For housing.

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