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More first-time homeless in LI shelters

Veteran Gustina Penna with her three-year-old son Aidan.

Veteran Gustina Penna with her three-year-old son Aidan. (May 4, 2012) Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa

Ava dresses professionally and carries a luxury-brand handbag. Each morning, she drops her 5-year-old daughter off at school, then drives to her hospital job.

Before work, when she occasionally stops to get gas or coffee, she often gets asked for handouts from people who say they are homeless.

She has to turn them down. She can't afford to help, because Ava is homeless too.

Her car is a loaner from a friend. The clothes and handbag are remnants from Ava's previous life, when she could afford them. She's not paid for working at her administrative job at the hospital -- instead, she's required to be there by the Nassau County Department of Social Services as a condition of receiving aid. And, at night, Ava and her daughter sleep in a homeless shelter in Roosevelt.

Social services providers say stories like Ava's aren't unique: Nearly 2,500 individuals, including 590 families, lived in Long Island homeless shelters as 2012 began.

And the faces of the homeless are changing as more and more working people like Ava, younger people who have less experience and seniority in the job market, and veterans returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are living in shelters, experts and officials said.

While the chronically homeless -- those who have been in the county system for more than a year -- remain, "they are now outnumbered by those who are new to the system and new to the experience," said Gregory Blass, Suffolk County's social services commissioner.

Blass' Nassau County counterpart, John Imhof, said his department is focusing on getting homeless families into permanent housing to avoid an increase in the shelter population.


'It just breaks my heart'

"Ava" is a pseudonym, since most of her friends and co-workers have no idea she's homeless, and she's worried about what might happen if they find out.

Ava, 43, blames her ex-husband for taking everything from her, leaving her and her daughter penniless and homeless. She lost her apartment in October 2010 and began sleeping on friends' couches.

Her family is deceased, and while her close friends help when they can -- inviting her and her daughter to dinner, or buying the child a pair of sandals -- Ava is hesitant to become a burden to them.

"I'm blessed to have a good support system, but they have their own lives," she said. "They help as much as they can."

Ava now lives at Bethany House, a homelike shelter for women and children that is nothing like the nightmarish scenes of homeless shelters Ava had seen in movies. The first day she arrived, Ava said, she was so terrified that a friend had to physically push her through the shelter's door.

"I knew nothing about any of this," Ava said. "I didn't know homelessness existed the way it does in Nassau County."

While Ava tries to shield her daughter, she knows the 5-year-old feels the stress of their situation.

"She said to me the other day, 'I wish I didn't have to go to school. I wish I was going to work to make $100. We could get a big house with a garage!' " Ava said. "You know what that does to me? I don't want to cry, but it just breaks my heart."

More workers checking in

Tracey Lutz, executive director of Maureen's Haven in Riverhead, which provides shelter during the winter for the homeless in churches and synagogues, and a daytime drop-in center year-round, said she's seen a spike in the number of working people who are using her agency.

"We have several who actually have their own vehicles and do have work," Lutz said, and listed them: A stock clerk at Rite Aid. A home health care worker. A music teacher who taught piano when the economy allowed more families to opt for such luxuries, but now sleeps in his car.

"You have a growing population whom you would never expect would be in a situation of homelessness -- namely those with skills and experience in the workforce," Blass said. "And this is on the increase."

Blass said nearly 60 percent of the people who come to his department these days have never asked for government help before.

Blass said Suffolk is also seeing more younger families in crisis, and not just because there are more young families in Suffolk. "A younger population is newer to the job market, has less seniority and experience in the job market, and is more expendable to employers," he said.

"I think there's a perception that people who experience homelessness are somehow outside of mainstream society, and that's not true," said Jo Anne Collins, director of housing and homeless services for the Family Service League in Huntington. "The whole concept that homelessness is an aberration, that as long as you're working hard you won't be homeless, is not real."


Transition efforts

In Suffolk, the number of homeless men, women and children has grown over the past five years, settling at 1,570 individuals, including 427 families, last month. Nassau's numbers have begun dropping after an increase over the past few years: 498 homeless individuals, including 101 families, in January, the latest numbers available.

Imhof said while few homeless families seeking help in Nassau County are working, more families there are seeking food and rent assistance, programs that help to stave off homelessness.

"The changes we've seen in increased applications have been really for food stamps, HEAP [Home Energy Assistance Program], temporary assistance -- people who have not reached the level of becoming homeless, but are becoming food-deprived," he said.

Imhof added that Nassau's homeless population "really does represent pretty much a cross-section of the county."

A homeless restabilization project that Nassau began last year, aimed at families with the most likelihood of staying in permanent housing, has reduced some of the pressure on that county's social-service system, Imhof said.

"Our goal is to empty out every shelter and motel of any homeless family in Nassau County," he said.

Blass said Suffolk moves 30 to 40 homeless families per month out of the county's 53 shelters, and the 16 motels it uses to handle the overflow, into permanent housing programs.

"If it weren't for that transitioning, our housing program would sink like a stone," Blass said. "It would never be able to keep up with the volume."

A 2010 report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that while the overall number of homeless people nationwide declined by 3.3 percent between 2007 and 2010, the number of homeless people in families nationally increased by 20 percent, and the number of people using shelters in suburban and rural areas increased by 57 percent.


Veterans struggle

Both Blass and Imhof said veterans are among the newest changes in the homeless population -- especially returning veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts who find themselves injured and out of work.

There are an estimated 700 homeless veterans on Long Island -- and that number is expected to grow, especially as the military begins its scheduled pullout from Afghanistan and the economy remains sluggish, said John A. Sperandeo, chief of social work service at the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

"We are starting to see increasing numbers of veterans who are facing either becoming homeless or on the verge of homelessness as a result of the downturn in the economy," Sperandeo said. "Newer veterans . . . are more caught up with that."

Twenty years ago, the Northport VA had just a couple of workers dedicated to the needs of homeless veterans; today, there are 18.

Greta Guarton, executive director of the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless, said repeated tours of duty often mean veterans get jobs but lose them, or suffer from traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder, leaving them in pain, at odds with their families and unable to work.

"You have a lot of folks who are continuously losing their jobs when they come back here," Guarton said. "Or they are unable to get a job when they come back."

The problem has gotten so acute that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has teamed up with the VA to offer housing vouchers to homeless vets along with supportive services that aim to keep the vets stable and housed.


'Trying to make it'

Gustina Penna, 33, was a heavy-equipment operator in the Army during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. When she returned stateside and moved in with her mother, she began enduring horrific nightmares and flashbacks -- symptoms of the PTSD she didn't realize she had.

Penna said she and her mother fought, and Penna began using alcohol and drugs to dull her pain. She soon became homeless, drifting from couch to couch before finally sleeping in her car.

"Going from the front lines of a war to a welfare line," as Penna described it.

It was exactly the opposite of what she thought her life would be like after the military.

"I didn't envision myself to self-medicate to the point where I was incoherent and did not want to feel or live anymore," she said.

Penna now lives in a shelter run by the United Veterans Beacon House with her two young sons, and hopes to move into permanent housing this year.

"I do my damnedest for these kids not to feel the situation we're in," Penna said. "When it's the end of the month and I'm tight on cash, I'll eat oatmeal, but my kids will eat whatever they want."

She's gotten treatment and therapy from the VA and is sober. She's back in school, training to become a medical assistant so she can better provide for her children. And she's hopeful -- realistic, but hopeful.

"The bottom line is this: Even being clean and sober, I still make poor decisions. I still have crappy luck. I'm still not the greatest [at] trying to budget myself. I stink at that," Penna said frankly. "But I'm making it. I'm trying to make it."


Long Island's homeless


June 2005

Homeless individuals-Suffolk: 1,240

Homeless individuals-Nassau: 370

Homeless families-Suffolk: 288

Homeless families-Nassau: 109

December 2005

Homeless individuals-Suffolk: 1,222

Homeless individuals-Nassau: 479

Homeless families-Suffolk: 308

Homeless families-Nassau: 128

June 2006

Homeless individuals-Suffolk: 995

Homeless individuals-Nassau: 397

Homeless families-Suffolk: 245

Homeless families-Nassau: 116

December 2006

Homeless individuals-Suffolk: 1,020

Homeless individuals-Nassau: 433

Homeless families-Suffolk: 269

Homeless families-Nassau: 118

June 2007

Homeless individuals-Suffolk: 926

Homeless individuals-Nassau: 276

Homeless families-Suffolk: 243

Homeless families-Nassau: 72

December 2007

Homeless individuals-Suffolk: 1,096

Homeless individuals-Nassau: 380

Homeless families-Suffolk: 274

Homeless families-Nassau: 97

June 2008

Homeless individuals-Suffolk: 1,003

Homeless individuals-Nassau: 423

Homeless families-Suffolk: 256

Homeless families-Nassau: 114

December 2008

Homeless individuals-Suffolk: 1,117

Homeless individuals-Nassau: 509

Homeless families-Suffolk: 280

Homeless families-Nassau: 134

June 2009

Homeless individuals-Suffolk: 1,123

Homeless individuals-Nassau: 505

Homeless families-Suffolk: 275

Homeless families-Nassau: 104

December 2009

Homeless individuals-Suffolk: 1,395

Homeless individuals-Nassau: 515

Homeless families-Suffolk: 347

Homeless families-Nassau: 118

June 2010

Homeless individuals-Suffolk: 1,243

Homeless individuals-Nassau: 744

Homeless families-Suffolk: 317

Homeless families-Nassau: 165

December 2010

Homeless individuals-Suffolk: 1,682

Homeless individuals-Nassau: 805

Homeless families-Suffolk: 407

Homeless families-Nassau: 172

June 2011

Homeless individuals-Suffolk: 1,441

Homeless individuals-Nassau: 662

Homeless families-Suffolk: 363

Homeless families-Nassau: 133

December 2011

Homeless individuals-Suffolk: 1,984

Homeless individuals-Nassau: 547

Homeless families-Suffolk: 502

Homeless families-Nassau: 111

January 2012

Homeless individuals-Suffolk: 1,998

Homeless individuals-Nassau: 498

Homeless families-Suffolk: 488

Homeless families-Nassau: 101


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