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Bleak economy puts strain on LI homeless shelters

Michelle Tingle and her son, Zuriel Mason, 9,

Michelle Tingle and her son, Zuriel Mason, 9, have been living in a homeless shelter in Deer Park since February. (Dec. 28, 2009) Credit: Mahala Gaylord

Long Island's homeless shelters are running out of room.

Unemployment, foreclosures and a bleak economy have pushed the number of homeless in Nassau and Suffolk shelters to almost 2,000, straining an Islandwide system of 65 emergency shelters, officials said.

Both adults and children are feeling the effects:

In Suffolk, the problem is most severe for families; 367 are homeless, while there is room for only about 295.

In Nassau, single adults have sought shelter in "disturbing numbers," said Connie Lassandro, director of the Office of Housing and Homeless Services. About 220 are homeless but there are beds for only 75.

Meanwhile, some beds lie empty because single adults and families cannot be housed together in most shelters.

The result: hundreds of displaced people are living in motel rooms, a practice Suffolk ended several years ago and that Nassau vowed to stop last year.

"The system is being overtaxed," said Greta Guarton, executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit agency.


Scrambling to serve homeless

County agencies and nonprofits have scrambled to open new shelter space since the homelessness surge - a 16 percent spike since the beginning of the recession last year - began to turn up in monthly statistics in the summer of 2009. In some months, homelessness has risen more than 30 percent, compared to the same month the year before.

One new shelter opened yesterday, an airy five-bedroom, three-bathroom home in Suffolk with room for up to 15 people. Two opened earlier this month in Nassau. But it's not nearly enough, officials said.

"The numbers are escalating too rapidly," Lassandro said.

Help is on the way but it's coming slowly and in piecemeal fashion, officials said.

A new shelter slated to open in Suffolk in three weeks will add four or five more beds. Nassau plans to open at least five more small shelters next year, but they won't be enough to handle the surging single adult population, officials said.

Unlike New York City, where large city-run shelters are common, Long Island's homeless housing is mostly a patchwork of small homes owned or rented by nonprofits or businesses. County social services departments reimburse the shelters but do not run them.

The small shelters - sometimes cozy residences in residential neighborhoods - can be less intimidating than large city-style dorms. But it's harder to add enough of them fast enough to keep up with surges, advocates said.

Michelle Tingle, 35, has lived in a Deer Park shelter with her son, Zuriel Mason, 9, since February as she tries to find full-time work again. "You have your ups and downs here, I don't like all the rules," Tingle said. But she added: "It is good to have shelter."

Under Suffolk law, only two homeless shelters can be located within a two-mile radius of each other.

In Nassau, a lack of other options led them to hire Community Housing Innovations, a Huntington nonprofit, to oversee dozens of homeless men and women housed in an undisclosed motel.

"There wasn't any shelter to put them in so we thought, let's bring the program to them," said Rosemary Dehlow, the non-profit's executive director.


Temporary solution

Homeless advocates praised the approach but said it should be a temporary solution.

The decision to use motels has helped fuel the rising homeless numbers, officials said. An unknown but significant number who were living with friends or relatives have declared themselves homeless only after word got out that Suffolk was again paying for motels, said Gregory Blass, Suffolk social services commissioner.

"It's created a vicious cycle," Blass said. "We try to keep it temporary. Motels are the least effective way to get someone in permanent housing." He said motel residents are generally more isolated from support services.

Blass and his Nassau counterparts said the answer for now is homeless prevention. Suffolk has about $4 million in federal funds this year, and Nassau $6.5 million, to help residents stay in their homes by paying rent or mortgage arrears.

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