Amy Wascylicia credits her stay last year at the Department of Veterans Affairs' homeless shelter in Northport with helping her get back on her feet.
The former Army soldier said she felt safe from thieves and predators, who she said were a menacing presence at other shelters she stayed at before. And because the shelter is on the grounds of the Northport VA Medical Center, psychotherapists to help her cope with her mental health issues were just a short stroll away.
But because of building code violations, it's unclear when and if the 44-bed Northport shelter will be around to help other veterans like Wascylicia. The shelter has been closed since January, when frigid temperatures overwhelmed the building’s heating plant, forcing VA officials to send some three dozen residents to shelters run by Beacon House, a nonprofit agency that also ran the Northport facility.
“The Northport shelter was heaven,” said Wascylicia, who on Tuesday tried on donated clothing at a veterans event in Freeport. “Other shelters I’ve been at have had crackheads or fondlers or people who steal your things. I felt so disrespected.”
Wascylicia now lives in transitional housing in Amityville after having been in and out of homelessness since 2009. Her trip to reach her twice-weekly psychotherapy sessions at Northport from Amityville involves bumming a ride or taking a four-bus, 2½-hour trip on public transportation, she said.
VA officials promised to have a new heating system installed by August, and that the shelter would begin accepting new residents well before winter temperatures arrived. But with temperatures having plunged into the teens this week, Northport officials have not indicated when or whether the shelter will reopen.
The VA declined to provide details on the shelter's future. A statement released by Northport spokesman Levi Spellman said the shelter’s home — Northport’s Building 11 — lost its grandfathered status when the shelter was vacated, and thus became subject to stricter building codes. He said the building failed a fire code inspection Nov. 14 because of inadequate sprinkler coverage.
“Because of the rules and regulations associated with the federal contracting process, renovating Building 11 up to code may take some time,” Spellman said in an email. “That’s why Northport VAMC will begin to solicit bids for on-site temporary emergency housing in the near future.”
Beacon House CEO Frank Amalfitano, whose organization provides temporary housing for some 400 veterans in about 45 locations in Nassau and Suffolk counties, said its other shelters are near capacity. He said because homeless veterans often need help with psychological issues and health problems, Northport’s ability to combine homeless services with clinical help made it an asset that cannot easily be replaced.
Amalfitano said the rate of utilization of these services fell sharply among homeless individuals who had to be relocated to as far away as Riverhead when the Northport shelter closed.
“The real tragedy is that participation in the various programs has gone down, and the PTSD program is one of them,” Amalfitano said.
Amalfitano said more than two dozen businesses and organizations donated more than $250,000 to renovate kitchens and bathrooms, paint the interior spaces, install a computer resource room, and make other improvements to the facility.
The closure has alarmed veterans advocates across Long Island, who said that although veterans' homelessness has declined, it remains a problem, especially among veterans with psychological troubles that require the kind of regular attention the Northport center provides.
“We no longer have as many veterans living on the street, but we still have homeless veterans who are either sleeping in someone’s garage, or their car, or on someone’s living room couch,” said Morris Miller, a veterans advocate who sits on a Northport advisory panel. “We have veterans that need those beds. Immediately.”
But it appears unlikely that the shelter's beds will be available anytime soon.
"We are currently assessing the requirements to bring the building up to current standards . . .," Spellman said in the email. "We are beginning the process of identifying the scope of work for that contract so we can begin soliciting bids as soon as possible."