The Koster family on Aug. 22, 1982 with the pickup they...

The Koster family on Aug. 22, 1982 with the pickup they called home. From left: the father, John Koster, daughter Janet,  mother, Florence, sons John Jr., in cab, and Edward, and daughters Helen and Donna-Sue. Credit: Newsday/Millie Rose Madrick

Janet Koster tries to forget having been a homeless child on Long Island with nowhere to sleep but her father's pickup truck.

Mom and dad up front, five siblings in the back. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches “when we could get bread.” Showers rarely. Coffee cans for a toilet.

“I really don’t remember that time in my life. I try not to,” said Koster, now 49 and living in Anderson, Indiana, about 38 miles northeast of Indianapolis.

Thanks to a decades-old, federal class-action lawsuit with Koster’s mother, Florence, as the lead plaintiff, Nassau County has been obligated since a 1987 legal settlement to provide “eligible” families emergency shelter 24/7, at public expense, and to meet minimum housing standards.

Still, the county’s obligation is narrower than one that the same lawyer, Robert Hayes, helped secure six years earlier in New York City. That settlement, from which Mayor Eric Adams’ lawyers plan to ask a judge to exempt certain migrants, was initially just for homeless men but has been expanded to cover anyone in need. That mandate is unique in the nation. Nassau’s covers just families, though state rules now require counties to shelter individuals, too.

Nowadays, the rules require that every county provide emergency shelter to any qualifying person in need, as long as the shelter-seeker isn't in the country illegally. But, at least on Long Island, the mandate isn't always obeyed, advocates for the homeless told Newsday earlier this month.

The city’s 42-year-old mandate has become key to an ongoing crisis that has seen an influx of more than 118,800 migrants from across the world, strained the city’s finances and crowded its shelter system. About half the migrants are in shelters or hotels paid for by the city, under a commitment Adams projected to cost $12 billion by next fiscal year. That’s on top of the costs incurred to shelter tens of thousands of the nonmigrant homeless population.

The effort to establish a mandate in Nassau was resisted for years by the county, which Hayes, a Valley Stream native, called at the time “notorious for being the least helpful to poor people in the state."

On the Island, the battle picked up steam in the 1980s with two families — the Kosters, of Seaford and Levittown, and the Weatherlys, of New Cassel.

Advocates had the lawsuit ready to go for a while but were waiting for the “right” plaintiffs — someone “who had been wronged, and also has a sympathetic and compelling story,” one of the lawyers on the case, Vicki Lens, recalled 33 years later in a book.

Back in the early 1980s, it was a time, Lens said in an interview, when New York City would routinely direct single homeless adults to a former penitentiary upstate that had been converted into a shelter. And in Nassau, she said, single adults were often denied any help whatsoever and advised to leave the county to find shelter elsewhere. Even those homeless families for whom the county did provide shelter were typically given subpar accommodations — and just for a few days. The not-so-subtle aim, it seemed, was to nudge the poorest Long Islanders anywhere else, she said.

There were roughly 5,000 homeless people in the county back then, according to the book by Lens. There are currently 3,536 homeless people on Long Island, of whom 1,463 are children, according to the latest census by the Island's Coalition of the Homeless.

The Kosters had been evicted from the house they rented, after the landlord demanded it for his own use, according to Lens' book, "Poor Justice: How the Poor Fare in the Courts" (2015). Lens is now a social work professor at Hunter College in Manhattan, but in the early 1980s she represented poor families as a public interest lawyer in Hempstead for Nassau Suffolk Law Services. The Koster and Weatherly families came in for help.

John Koster had been a truck driver for Citibank until he was injured in an accident and disabled, Janet Koster said last month in an interview. The family had been on welfare for three years and couldn’t pay the rent, Newsday reported after the suit was filed. The Nassau social services department had paid for three days in a hotel but wouldn’t pay for any more, the Kosters said, even when the family couldn’t find anywhere else to go.

Being homeless is “your problem,” and "we can't help you," Florence Koster was told by the county, as she recounted to Newsday in 1984.

“I would treat a strange dog on the street better than they treated me,” she said.

So the Kosters split up and migrated from relative to relative, sleeping on the floor. Soon, the couple, native Long Islanders, and their five children ages 8 to 17, had nowhere to go but the pickup, which John Koster parked in a shopping center on Hempstead Turnpike in East Meadow.

Janet recalled of the ordeal: “It was cold. You didn’t have restrooms. It was not nice. No showers.”

Elsewhere in the county, a fire in 1982 had left Patricia Weatherly and her four children, ages 8 months to 10 years old, homeless. The Nassau social services department then placed the family in a single room, in the basement of a house, with one bed, a cot and no bathroom or cooking facilities.

“I was in a room with four kids. I remember that real good now,” she recalled earlier this month. She added: "It was bad. But it was OK. They was my kids, so they would be all over me anyway."

"It was hard," she said, "but I did it." 

She eventually found housing on her own for the family, with the help of neighbors in New Cassel.

Unlike the lawsuit in New York City, which relied on the state constitution’s amendment relating to the “aid, care and support of the needy,” the Nassau suit cited the federal Families With Dependent Children program (later called Temporary Aid to Needy Families).

“To strengthen our case," Lens wrote in her book, "we scoured New York’s federally mandated state plan and discovered it included the benefit ‘securing family shelter’ in emergency or crisis situations. Phrases such as ‘providing living arrangements in a home’ and ‘securing family shelter’ gave us the legal hook to argue for a more specific right to adequate emergency shelter.” 

In court, Nassau County argued it was under no legal obligation to shelter the homeless.

But the judge, I. Leo Glasser of U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn, disagreed, refusing to dismiss the lawsuit. It would be the first time a federal court had found a right to shelter, Lens said. The county settled in 1987.

The settlement, the terms of which remain in place decades later, require, among other things, that the county locate and obtain emergency housing on the same day a request is made and respond 24/7 to such requests. The minimum standards include a room that can be locked, generally no more than two adults in the same room, and a bed for each family member (or a double bed for same-gender siblings, or for consenting adults), except for a child under 3, for whom a crib is required.

There are also standards for chairs, linens, toiletries, the bathroom, school transportation and cooking facilities (and if not, a restaurant allowance).

Unlike the city settlement, which has now been applied to anyone, from any country, who is in need, regardless of immigration status, those in Nassau must be eligible for federal benefits, meaning a person who is in the country illegally is generally not covered, Hayes said. An enterprising lawyer might be able to convince a judge in a new lawsuit that a provision of the Medicaid law applying to pregnant women — which applies regardless of immigration status — might be interpreted to cover that woman under the Nassau settlement, he said.

Four decades later, Janet Koster said she never knew that her family had been a litigant in the case; Patricia Weatherly had forgotten about the episode entirely until a reporter jogged her memory.

Janet Koster left Levittown when her own son was 5 and after the death of her mother in 2006; her father died in 2009. Koster and three of her siblings eventually moved and now live in Indiana. Another died of cancer. Another is in Pennsylvania. Janet works at a Burger King drive-thru. 

"Struggling, to be honest," she said in a text message. "I'm so far behind on bills."

She said that her pay isn't enough … she relies on a food pantry sometimes … her internet service was cut off Friday; her lights are probably next … she hasn't heard from her son's father in some 15 years.

Patricia Weatherly is now 69, and after remarrying, uses her husband's surname, Dorleus. She lives about 22 miles west of Orlando, Florida, in Clermont, where she moved about 19 years ago. Her husband, a truck driver, isn't physically abusive, unlike a man with whom she had a previous relationship. Weatherly said her husband, whom she married in 1983, helped her get off welfare and provides well for her. She works as a bus monitor for special-needs children.

As for her own children, a son and a daughter live in New Cassel. Another son is in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The youngest of her children had sickle cell disease and died in 1982 just before turning 2, the year the family was living in the Spartan room that led to the lawsuit four decades ago.

One of the grown children is homeless in New Cassel. He's been missing since July. Weatherly's friends on Long Island have spotted him, shirtless and underweight, just blocks from where the family once lived in that room.

Calls to a local shelter and the jail have yielded no answers, she said. No one has any answers.

“I came up there Christmastime. I couldn’t find him,” she said. “People telling me, he on the corner. Nobody want to give him nowhere to stay.”

Janet Koster tries to forget having been a homeless child on Long Island with nowhere to sleep but her father's pickup truck.

Mom and dad up front, five siblings in the back. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches “when we could get bread.” Showers rarely. Coffee cans for a toilet.

“I really don’t remember that time in my life. I try not to,” said Koster, now 49 and living in Anderson, Indiana, about 38 miles northeast of Indianapolis.

Thanks to a decades-old, federal class-action lawsuit with Koster’s mother, Florence, as the lead plaintiff, Nassau County has been obligated since a 1987 legal settlement to provide “eligible” families emergency shelter 24/7, at public expense, and to meet minimum housing standards.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • A landmark class-action lawsuit in the 1980s helped establish a right to emergency homeless shelter for families in Nassau.
  • One mother had to live in a pickup truck with her husband and five children. Another mother was placed in a single room with her four children but no bathroom and no kitchen. Both women sued.
  • Four decades later, despite the settlement and state rules requiring emergency shelter, advocates for the homeless say the mandate isn’t always followed.

Still, the county’s obligation is narrower than one that the same lawyer, Robert Hayes, helped secure six years earlier in New York City. That settlement, from which Mayor Eric Adams’ lawyers plan to ask a judge to exempt certain migrants, was initially just for homeless men but has been expanded to cover anyone in need. That mandate is unique in the nation. Nassau’s covers just families, though state rules now require counties to shelter individuals, too.

Nowadays, the rules require that every county provide emergency shelter to any qualifying person in need, as long as the shelter-seeker isn't in the country illegally. But, at least on Long Island, the mandate isn't always obeyed, advocates for the homeless told Newsday earlier this month.

Four of the Koster siblings, now living in Indiana, from...

Four of the Koster siblings, now living in Indiana, from left: Florence Koster Hernandez, Donna Koster Cortes-Solis, John Koster and Janet Koster, on Sept. 2. (Koster Hernandez was in the Army when her siblings and parents lived in the pickup in the 1980s.) Credit: FotoCross Photography/Bob Cross

The city’s 42-year-old mandate has become key to an ongoing crisis that has seen an influx of more than 118,800 migrants from across the world, strained the city’s finances and crowded its shelter system. About half the migrants are in shelters or hotels paid for by the city, under a commitment Adams projected to cost $12 billion by next fiscal year. That’s on top of the costs incurred to shelter tens of thousands of the nonmigrant homeless population.

County resistance

The effort to establish a mandate in Nassau was resisted for years by the county, which Hayes, a Valley Stream native, called at the time “notorious for being the least helpful to poor people in the state."

On the Island, the battle picked up steam in the 1980s with two families — the Kosters, of Seaford and Levittown, and the Weatherlys, of New Cassel.

Advocates had the lawsuit ready to go for a while but were waiting for the “right” plaintiffs — someone “who had been wronged, and also has a sympathetic and compelling story,” one of the lawyers on the case, Vicki Lens, recalled 33 years later in a book.

Back in the early 1980s, it was a time, Lens said in an interview, when New York City would routinely direct single homeless adults to a former penitentiary upstate that had been converted into a shelter. And in Nassau, she said, single adults were often denied any help whatsoever and advised to leave the county to find shelter elsewhere. Even those homeless families for whom the county did provide shelter were typically given subpar accommodations — and just for a few days. The not-so-subtle aim, it seemed, was to nudge the poorest Long Islanders anywhere else, she said.

There were roughly 5,000 homeless people in the county back then, according to the book by Lens. There are currently 3,536 homeless people on Long Island, of whom 1,463 are children, according to the latest census by the Island's Coalition of the Homeless.

The Kosters had been evicted from the house they rented, after the landlord demanded it for his own use, according to Lens' book, "Poor Justice: How the Poor Fare in the Courts" (2015). Lens is now a social work professor at Hunter College in Manhattan, but in the early 1980s she represented poor families as a public interest lawyer in Hempstead for Nassau Suffolk Law Services. The Koster and Weatherly families came in for help.

John Koster had been a truck driver for Citibank until he was injured in an accident and disabled, Janet Koster said last month in an interview. The family had been on welfare for three years and couldn’t pay the rent, Newsday reported after the suit was filed. The Nassau social services department had paid for three days in a hotel but wouldn’t pay for any more, the Kosters said, even when the family couldn’t find anywhere else to go.

Being homeless is “your problem,” and "we can't help you," Florence Koster was told by the county, as she recounted to Newsday in 1984.

“I would treat a strange dog on the street better than they treated me,” she said.

So the Kosters split up and migrated from relative to relative, sleeping on the floor. Soon, the couple, native Long Islanders, and their five children ages 8 to 17, had nowhere to go but the pickup, which John Koster parked in a shopping center on Hempstead Turnpike in East Meadow.

Janet recalled of the ordeal: “It was cold. You didn’t have restrooms. It was not nice. No showers.”

One room, four children, one mom 

Elsewhere in the county, a fire in 1982 had left Patricia Weatherly and her four children, ages 8 months to 10 years old, homeless. The Nassau social services department then placed the family in a single room, in the basement of a house, with one bed, a cot and no bathroom or cooking facilities.

“I was in a room with four kids. I remember that real good now,” she recalled earlier this month. She added: "It was bad. But it was OK. They was my kids, so they would be all over me anyway."

"It was hard," she said, "but I did it." 

She eventually found housing on her own for the family, with the help of neighbors in New Cassel.

Unlike the lawsuit in New York City, which relied on the state constitution’s amendment relating to the “aid, care and support of the needy,” the Nassau suit cited the federal Families With Dependent Children program (later called Temporary Aid to Needy Families).

“To strengthen our case," Lens wrote in her book, "we scoured New York’s federally mandated state plan and discovered it included the benefit ‘securing family shelter’ in emergency or crisis situations. Phrases such as ‘providing living arrangements in a home’ and ‘securing family shelter’ gave us the legal hook to argue for a more specific right to adequate emergency shelter.” 

In court, Nassau County argued it was under no legal obligation to shelter the homeless.

But the judge, I. Leo Glasser of U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn, disagreed, refusing to dismiss the lawsuit. It would be the first time a federal court had found a right to shelter, Lens said. The county settled in 1987.

The settlement, the terms of which remain in place decades later, require, among other things, that the county locate and obtain emergency housing on the same day a request is made and respond 24/7 to such requests. The minimum standards include a room that can be locked, generally no more than two adults in the same room, and a bed for each family member (or a double bed for same-gender siblings, or for consenting adults), except for a child under 3, for whom a crib is required.

There are also standards for chairs, linens, toiletries, the bathroom, school transportation and cooking facilities (and if not, a restaurant allowance).

Unlike the city settlement, which has now been applied to anyone, from any country, who is in need, regardless of immigration status, those in Nassau must be eligible for federal benefits, meaning a person who is in the country illegally is generally not covered, Hayes said. An enterprising lawyer might be able to convince a judge in a new lawsuit that a provision of the Medicaid law applying to pregnant women — which applies regardless of immigration status — might be interpreted to cover that woman under the Nassau settlement, he said.

Four decades later, Janet Koster said she never knew that her family had been a litigant in the case; Patricia Weatherly had forgotten about the episode entirely until a reporter jogged her memory.

Janet Koster left Levittown when her own son was 5 and after the death of her mother in 2006; her father died in 2009. Koster and three of her siblings eventually moved and now live in Indiana. Another died of cancer. Another is in Pennsylvania. Janet works at a Burger King drive-thru. 

"Struggling, to be honest," she said in a text message. "I'm so far behind on bills."

She said that her pay isn't enough … she relies on a food pantry sometimes … her internet service was cut off Friday; her lights are probably next … she hasn't heard from her son's father in some 15 years.

Patricia Weatherly, now Patricia Dorleus, in 1980 with her children, clockwise from upper left: LaShanta, Morris,...

Patricia Weatherly, now Patricia Dorleus, in 1980 with her children, clockwise from upper left: LaShanta, Morris, Christopher and Terell, and right, this year. Credit: Patricia Dorleus

Patricia Weatherly is now 69, and after remarrying, uses her husband's surname, Dorleus. She lives about 22 miles west of Orlando, Florida, in Clermont, where she moved about 19 years ago. Her husband, a truck driver, isn't physically abusive, unlike a man with whom she had a previous relationship. Weatherly said her husband, whom she married in 1983, helped her get off welfare and provides well for her. She works as a bus monitor for special-needs children.

As for her own children, a son and a daughter live in New Cassel. Another son is in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The youngest of her children had sickle cell disease and died in 1982 just before turning 2, the year the family was living in the Spartan room that led to the lawsuit four decades ago.

One of the grown children is homeless in New Cassel. He's been missing since July. Weatherly's friends on Long Island have spotted him, shirtless and underweight, just blocks from where the family once lived in that room.

Calls to a local shelter and the jail have yielded no answers, she said. No one has any answers.

“I came up there Christmastime. I couldn’t find him,” she said. “People telling me, he on the corner. Nobody want to give him nowhere to stay.”

Students could soon have a 'Heat Day' … A 'Heroes Fountain' … 90-year-old volunteer Credit: Newsday

Updated 34 minutes ago Suffolk red light program set to end ... Students could soon have a 'Heat Day' ... A 'Heroes Fountain' ... Wet weather ahead

Students could soon have a 'Heat Day' … A 'Heroes Fountain' … 90-year-old volunteer Credit: Newsday

Updated 34 minutes ago Suffolk red light program set to end ... Students could soon have a 'Heat Day' ... A 'Heroes Fountain' ... Wet weather ahead

Latest videos

SUBSCRIBE

Unlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months

ACT NOWSALE ENDS SOON | CANCEL ANYTIME