A crew of workers with shovels and chain saws arrived Monday morning and ordered Latino day laborers out of the Huntington Station woods where they have been living in a tent village, some for years.
After ordering members of the media to leave the private property, the crew then could be heard working with chain saws; many of the shelters are fashioned from heavy tree branches.
The action punctuated a weeklong standoff between the day laborers and authorities. But it left unresolved the question of where the men will live during the day. At night during in cold weather, they usually bed down at local churches.
"They are destroying their very humble shelter and at the same time offering no alternative housing," said Latino advocate Rev. Allan Ramirez. Ramirez said he referred to government-run, long-term housing for the homeless. That's not available for undocumented immigrants, such as many of the men in the Huntington Station woods, because the state will not reimburse the county for providing the service. Still, Suffolk says it can offer a night or two in a public shelter.
Town officials said they were acting humanely. "The town is doing what it can to try to ensure that nobody dies out there because of the cold when there are options out there to keep them warm," said Town of Huntington spokesman A.J. Carter. He added that emergency housing for the homeless is a county function.
Gregory Blass, commissioner of Suffolk County Department of Social Services, said "not-for-profit housing was offered to these individuals and was rejected," although he offered no details.
He also said "the property owner contacted the Town of Huntington to have these people removed from his property . . . Reverend Ramirez is suggesting that a town government should ignore a private property owner's request that trespassers be removed and offered housing by a nonprofit shelter."
Ramirez said, "Not a single [day laborer] has said to me alternative housing has been offered to them."
Town of Huntington officials also said the town issued the owners a notice last week to clean up debris and garbage. Carter said it was not the first time the town had done so.
The encampment has been at the site for several years, but the town acted this week following news coverage of the men's presence there, Carter said.
The cleanup crew then was sent to the site by the property's owner, listed as Starlight Building Corp., a Huntington Station company owned by Louis and John Bonavita. They did not return telephone messages seeking comment.
The 26.6-acre site is the location of a proposed housing development by Avalon Bays, a developer in Melville that hopes to buy the property from Starlight, Carter said.
The Huntington Station site is one of several on Long Island where day laborers and others live in the woods. Others are in Bay Shore, Brentwood, and the East End.
Monday, the day laborers milled about outside the Manor Field athletic complex near the wooded area on East Fifth Street where they had been living. "This is bad, because we are going to die of cold in the streets," Jorge Mendoza, 45, said. He said he had been living in the woods for about a month because he could not get work or pay rent. Others said they'd been living there for as long as two years.