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LI shelters full as homeless try to keep warm

Long Island Cares, Community Outreach Specialist, Richard Shackelford,

Long Island Cares, Community Outreach Specialist, Richard Shackelford, with bags of food to be distributed to homeless people. (Feb. 3, 2011) Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

The unforgiving winter has compelled many of Long Island's homeless to seek warmth in the shelters they usually avoid.

One program - Nassau County's Warm Bed - has seen a threefold increase in the number of people seeking emergency shelter as snow and ice storms ravage the area. The program is housing about 60 a night, said Connie Lassandro, Nassau County's director of housing and homeless services. The cold has driven inside some of the groups that normally stay away from shelters - undocumented immigrants, and people with substance-abuse or mental-health problems, Lassandro said.

"We've been pretty successful at getting what we consider our chronically homeless to come in out of the cold with Warm Bed," she said.

In Suffolk, where county officials say they don't differentiate between emergency or other temporary housing, shelters are full due to both the harsh weather and the fact that homelessness is on the rise all over Long Island.

Department of Social Services Commissioner Greg Blass credits his department's homeless outreach program with connecting those homeless who either are hesitant to accept government help or are ineligible because of their immigration status, to nonprofits for housing assistance."We are optimistic about the homeless outreach program's efforts to prevent tragedies," he said.

But even amid the relentless storms, a segment of homeless people remains wary of shelters because they fear crime or chafe at the rules.

Last Wednesday, homeless man George Wallin, 65, burned to death during the ice storm while trying to keep warm by the heat of two small fuel cans behind a shuttered supermarket in Lawrence, police said. And last month, a woman froze to death outside in Rocky Point.

"Clearly it's been a much more difficult winter for the unsheltered homeless than it has been in many years," said Greta Guarton, executive director of the nonprofit Long Island Coalition for the Homeless.

The harsh weather has made outreach even more urgent. On Thursday, in the effort to help feed those living outside, Richard Shackelford jumped into a van loaded with bags of food and prepared for what he calls "HH": homeless hunting.

Shackelford, 53, is a community outreach specialist for Long Island Cares, a Hauppauge food bank. Three times a week, he patrols parts of Long Island, giving out ready-to-eat foods and personal-hygiene products to the homeless - usually men - he finds on the streets.

Shackelford drove slowly around the streets of Huntington on Thursday, his head constantly swiveling as he looked for people who had the telltale signs of homelessness - excess layers of clothing, a disheartened walk that the former Green Beret and airline executive describes as "no pep in the step."

Shackelford finds a group of men who smile at his approach and thank him politely for the plastic bags full of cereal, milk, energy bars and tuna. The men discuss work - one has it, the others don't - before the group walks down the street clutching the bags. Shackelford said he hopes that they make it to a shelter that night, although he knows that many will opt for the makeshift shelter of a Long Island Rail Road station or a hospital emergency room instead.

"None of them are a fan of the shelters," he said. "There's a lot of rules and regulations. They get things stolen from them while they're in there."

In Hempstead on Friday, one homeless man pushing a shopping cart along a street said he'd not been to a shelter this winter. "Right now I'm not staying anywhere," he said. "This winter is just like any other winter. I'm 50. I've been through 50 winters."

Nassau County has seen a jump in the number of homeless people it shelters in its programs other than Warm Bed, Lassandro said. The average number of homeless families the county has sheltered has risen from 101 in 2009 to about 150 last year, while the average number of homeless individuals has gone from 161 in 2009 to 204 last year, she said.

The numbers in Suffolk County are also climbing, said Greg Blass, department of social services commissioner. The average number of homeless families in Suffolk County last year was 334 but this year its 412. The county has also gone from an average of 195 homeless individuals last year to an average of 257 so far this year, Blass said. Suffolk's 52 county shelters offering temporary housing with no time limit are so full that the county is housing about 110 of its homeless families in motels, Blass said. With Sophia Chang

How to get help

* Emergency housing for homeless veterans, 877-4-AID-VET

* Maureen's Haven provides emergency housing on the East End, 631-727-6831

* Huntington Interfaith Homeless Initiative provides emergency housing in the Huntington area, 631-427-3700 ext. 301

* The Interfaith Nutrition Network runs emergency homeless shelters, 516-486-8506

* Nassau County's Warm Bed program, 866-WARM-BED

* Suffolk County's Homeless Outreach Program, 631-852-COPS. Residents can call if they see a homeless person who needs help.

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