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Cold weather can be lethal for LI's homeless

Homeless people live inside these tents in a

Homeless people live inside these tents in a wooded area in Huntington Station. (Jan. 4, 2010) Credit: James Carbone

The numbing cold and bitter wind that has gripped Long Island in recent days can be lethal for those homeless people who are resistant to offers of help and reluctant to seek shelter.

Yet with the cold weather, this invisible population suddenly emerges. A growing number of them have been showing up at shelters in the past couple of weeks as temperatures have dipped, say homeless-outreach workers.

Patricia Rose, a 20-year veteran of Nassau County's social services department, meets the chronically homeless on their own ground. She travels the county up to five days a week, finding them under bridges, in the woods and behind supermarkets.

Many feel safe on the streets and are afraid to leave, Rose said, but the prospect of dying of exposure is a powerful motivator.

"We don't want anybody to freeze to death out there, so we point out that's a possibility," Rose said, "and try to get them into shelter."

Exposure is suspected in the death of a homeless man from New Cassel found face down in the snow Dec. 21, though autopsy results are pending. In 2006, a homeless man was found frozen in the woods near Route 101 in East Patchogue.

With job losses and foreclosures growing, the number of homeless has spiked on Long Island an estimated 16 percent since the recession began in early 2008. Many families are experiencing homelessness for the first time.

For the chronic homeless, however, poverty is coupled with other problems.

Advocates say some may be drug addicts or mentally ill. Others may be afraid to come forward because they are not legally in the country and fear deportation.

Greta Guarton, executive director of the Nassau Suffolk Coalition for the Homeless, said some of the chronically homeless who have built their own makeshift shelters worry their belongings will be stolen and "homes" vandalized if they leave.

Sometimes the threat of another night in the cold can counter such fears.

"When they do come in," Guarton said, "many times they recognize it's a life or death situation."

Outreach workers find it difficult to gain the trust of the chronically homeless. It won't happen after a single night out of the cold, said Guarton, but it's a chance to engage them, a place to start.

That's happening in Riverhead and the surrounding area, where Dennis Yuen directs Maureen's Haven Homeless Outreach. Yuen said the number of those seeking shelter has leaped recently with the severe cold.

And several who are coming in are known homeless, he said, who have never before asked for help.

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