A visit to hidden migrant encampments in the Hamptons. NewsdayTV's Jasmine Anderson reports. Credit: Newsday/Randee Daddona / Steven Pfost

Victor Cruz starts his day by walking to a nearby convenience store for fresh water. That’s also where, on warm days, he showered with a hose — at least, until the hose was removed.

Cruz, 48, lives in the woods of the Hamptons, just minutes from Southampton Village and neighborhoods with sprawling mansions. It’s unclear when the encampment Cruz has lived in the past four years got its start, but neighbors and advocates say it’s been there for years.

The main campsite lies just feet from some backyards, with shelters cobbled together from tarps, scrap wood and sticks. Twin mattresses with blankets are stacked inside three makeshift tents. A fire pit surrounded by chairs rests at the center of the encampment, under the shelter of a tarp stretched between trees. The area, littered with trash, is home to cats called Gris, Pantera and White Paws by the men who live there.

The camp and its inhabitants, a number that fluctuates, may not be there for much longer. Plans to build 50 units of affordable housing on the site were set in motion years ago. Knowledge of the inhabitants in the woods bordering the Hillcrest Avenue community has done little to stop the site's pending development.

“The town came to us and suggested the site way back in 2017,” said Ralph Fasano, executive director of the nonprofit developer Concern Housing. 

The project, delayed by the pandemic, still needs the Southampton Town Board to approve a zoning change before it can move forward. Town officials said that vote is planned for sometime this month. Concern Housing is in contract with Southampton Full Gospel Church to buy the property, according to Fasano, who said he hopes to start construction by the end of this year.  

Some community members have resisted the proposal, called Liberty Gardens, raising concerns about traffic, environmental impact and added strain to emergency services. The project would be built on five acres on the southern half of the 9.48-acre Southampton property.

Proponents for the $38 million development have said it could help address an affordable housing crisis in Southampton, with its median rent around $2,152 per month between 2018 and 2022, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Median gross rent in Suffolk County between 2018 and 2022 stood at around $2,113 per month.

Half of the 50 units at Liberty Gardens will be affordable housing for individuals who make up to 60% of Long Island’s area median income, which is equivalent to $65,650 for a single person and $93,800 for a family of four. The other half will be set aside for homeless veterans.

Town officials couldn't say what will happen to those who live where the apartments will be built, except that outreach groups or the town police likely will help connect them with resources.

Cruz and others at the homeless encampment won't qualify for the housing at Liberty Gardens unless they meet specific income requirements or they're a veteran, which Cruz — who moved to the United States from Mexico around 20 years ago — is not. He also lacks documentation, something that further limits his ability to find shelter.

Fasano said Concern Housing plans to work with the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless, where he's a board member, to offer resources to people living at the site, but he was unsure what may be available for those who lack citizenship.

Working with developers to relocate unsheltered individuals living at construction sites is not a new request for the homeless coalition. It tries to help people safely move without losing their belongings and connect with housing or other services, said Michael Giuffrida, associate director of the coalition.

“Best-case scenario, whoever is doing the construction, or the property owner, is reaching out to us as much in advance as possible. Our street outreach teams often go out in response to things like that happening,” Giuffrida said, adding that the coalition does their "best to respond to any community referral" for people living outside.

The coalition takes a “person-centered” approach to help people who are unhoused “meet their goals,” he said, by providing families and individuals with housing-focused case management, running a line to help people connect with available resources and coordinating referrals to housing programs for the homeless. 

Except for when temperatures drop below freezing, a Social Security number is required to access Nassau and Suffolk county-run shelters — which means individuals without documentation are excluded from those programs, although some charity and faith groups offer alternatives.

Cruz is uncertain how many people live in the Southampton homeless encampment. On a Friday in early March, he was there with another man chopping wood and a 20-year-old resting in a tent. Both declined to speak with reporters. 

Southampton Village Police Chief Suzanne Hurteau said the population there tends to fluctuate, with more individuals staying at the encampment when it's warm out. 

Newsday could not find Cruz on a second visit to the site to ask where he would go if the woods were cut. He does not have a phone or other device where he can be reached.

Cruz used to have an apartment by a Sunoco gas station, he said, but rent went up and it became too expensive, so he left.

“Before, the American dream, like they say, was to acquire papers,” he said in Spanish. But not anymore. Cruz and other migrants living homeless in the Hamptons said seeking citizenship gets harder the longer they’re in the country.

Immigration attorney T.J. Mills said individuals without documentation generally have a year after arriving in the country to apply for asylum, which has strict qualifications.

And, he said, it’s become harder for people who have been in the country for years to move through the documentation process.

“About three or four years ago, they changed their method of vetting these cases, where instead of going to the oldest cases that were filed … [they] focus on the new applicants,” he said, adding that he has clients who have been waiting for interviews for more than 10 years.

A 2022 Suffolk County report on poverty criticized the restrictiveness of federal immigration laws, arguing that limiting immigrants from entering the country legally has forced “many of Suffolk’s estimated 50,000 undocumented workers into an underground economy with worker exploitation and poverty wages.”

Cruz makes $12 for an hour of landscaping, and usually works 12 hours a day, he said. He didn't know that his pay falls short of Long Island’s minimum wage, which is $16 per hour.

The camp in the woods is no secret in the Southampton community. Multiple advocates, politicians and residents described the location to Newsday reporters, and the homeless population there was discussed in 2022 hearings for the affordable housing proposal.

The owner of a store to the east of the site wrote in a letter to the town that he put up a fence separating the woods from his business because customers complained they “felt threatened and afraid for their safety from the people who were more or less living there.”

“We all knew this was going on but ignored it,” Terence McCulley, owner of Peconic Beverage Inc., said in the 2022 letter supporting the development.

So far in 2024, between Jan. 1 and March 31, Southampton Village police have not recorded any incidents involving unhoused individuals in the area. 

"There's not a huge call volume regarding [the camp]. There have been a few calls there where they actually call on one another if they're fighting amongst themselves," Hurteau said. 

People living in houses neighboring the camp mostly declined to comment when approached by Newsday, although a few said the camp’s inhabitants keep to themselves. One neighbor, who moved in a month ago, hadn’t been aware that the camp was there.

“I’m speechless,” said Michael Psomas, 34. “My best friend owns a house across the street here. We’ve walked around the neighborhood a million times.”

And yet, as well known as the camp is — one of many in the Hamptons, a region where homelessness has been an issue across demographics for decades — some charity groups that work with the homeless on the East End declined interviews about migrants living in the woods.

“I do think you'll find challenge speaking to people that are just trying to do work and at times not want to be in the papers, because while that draws support, that also sometimes draws controversy,” said Peggy Boyd, vice president of advocacy and community services at the Huntington-based Family Service League, a nonprofit that offers mental health, addiction, housing and essential human services.

To afford a home in Suffolk County, at a median price of $575,000, a family would need a yearly income of around $192,000, according to the county's 2022 poverty report. The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Suffolk, where rentals make up just 18% of housing stock, was $3,470 per month, according to the report.

“Our ongoing struggle with the lack of affordable and available housing, rental housing, rooms to rent — those are real challenges for Long Island,” Boyd said.

Every winter, Hurteau said, Southampton Village has a few more "local homeless people." They're very proud, she said. They don't want police help, although officers try to help them find shelter, especially when it gets too cold.

"We definitely need more resources" to help people experiencing homelessness, she said, "especially on the East End."

The Long Island Coalition for the Homeless recorded 3,536 individuals experiencing homelessness in a shelter or on the street throughout Long Island last January in the nonprofit's most recently published point-in-time count. A little more than 100 of those individuals, as veterans, could qualify to apply for apartments at Liberty Gardens.

Cruz is among those thousands experiencing homelessness on Long Island. He's not a veteran. And, as someone who is undocumented with little money, he's left with few alternatives for shelter. 

Huddled in a coat by the camp's fire on a cold evening in early March, Cruz said he does think sometimes that this is not the life he wanted.

“Who knows if I’ll live like I used to,” he said.

But what can he do about it? It is what it is, he said.

With Jasmine Anderson, Jocelyn Cruz, Randee Daddona and Steven Pfost

Victor Cruz starts his day by walking to a nearby convenience store for fresh water. That’s also where, on warm days, he showered with a hose — at least, until the hose was removed.

Cruz, 48, lives in the woods of the Hamptons, just minutes from Southampton Village and neighborhoods with sprawling mansions. It’s unclear when the encampment Cruz has lived in the past four years got its start, but neighbors and advocates say it’s been there for years.

The main campsite lies just feet from some backyards, with shelters cobbled together from tarps, scrap wood and sticks. Twin mattresses with blankets are stacked inside three makeshift tents. A fire pit surrounded by chairs rests at the center of the encampment, under the shelter of a tarp stretched between trees. The area, littered with trash, is home to cats called Gris, Pantera and White Paws by the men who live there.

The camp and its inhabitants, a number that fluctuates, may not be there for much longer. Plans to build 50 units of affordable housing on the site were set in motion years ago. Knowledge of the inhabitants in the woods bordering the Hillcrest Avenue community has done little to stop the site's pending development.

      WHAT TO KNOW

  • Victor Cruz lives in a homeless encampment in the woods of the Hamptons, just minutes from Southampton Village and neighborhoods with sprawling mansions. 
  • Cruz and the camp, however, might not be there for much longer. Plans to build 50 units of affordable housing on the site were set in motion years ago. 
  • Cruz is one among thousands of unhoused individuals on Long Island, where the cost of housing has become increasingly out of reach. And, because he's not a citizen, his options for shelter are even more limited.

“The town came to us and suggested the site way back in 2017,” said Ralph Fasano, executive director of the nonprofit developer Concern Housing. 

The project, delayed by the pandemic, still needs the Southampton Town Board to approve a zoning change before it can move forward. Town officials said that vote is planned for sometime this month. Concern Housing is in contract with Southampton Full Gospel Church to buy the property, according to Fasano, who said he hopes to start construction by the end of this year.  

Some community members have resisted the proposal, called Liberty Gardens, raising concerns about traffic, environmental impact and added strain to emergency services. The project would be built on five acres on the southern half of the 9.48-acre Southampton property.

A rendering of Concern Housing’s Liberty Gardens community in Southampton. Credit: Concern Housing

Proponents for the $38 million development have said it could help address an affordable housing crisis in Southampton, with its median rent around $2,152 per month between 2018 and 2022, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Median gross rent in Suffolk County between 2018 and 2022 stood at around $2,113 per month.

Half of the 50 units at Liberty Gardens will be affordable housing for individuals who make up to 60% of Long Island’s area median income, which is equivalent to $65,650 for a single person and $93,800 for a family of four. The other half will be set aside for homeless veterans.

Town officials couldn't say what will happen to those who live where the apartments will be built, except that outreach groups or the town police likely will help connect them with resources.

Housing for some, not for all

Victor Cruz, a migrant from Mexico, shows living conditions at the camp in Southampton where he was living on March 1. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Cruz and others at the homeless encampment won't qualify for the housing at Liberty Gardens unless they meet specific income requirements or they're a veteran, which Cruz — who moved to the United States from Mexico around 20 years ago — is not. He also lacks documentation, something that further limits his ability to find shelter.

Fasano said Concern Housing plans to work with the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless, where he's a board member, to offer resources to people living at the site, but he was unsure what may be available for those who lack citizenship.

Working with developers to relocate unsheltered individuals living at construction sites is not a new request for the homeless coalition. It tries to help people safely move without losing their belongings and connect with housing or other services, said Michael Giuffrida, associate director of the coalition.

Michael R. Giuffrida, associate director at Long Island Coalition for the Homeless, at the group's headquarters in Amityville. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

“Best-case scenario, whoever is doing the construction, or the property owner, is reaching out to us as much in advance as possible. Our street outreach teams often go out in response to things like that happening,” Giuffrida said, adding that the coalition does their "best to respond to any community referral" for people living outside.

The coalition takes a “person-centered” approach to help people who are unhoused “meet their goals,” he said, by providing families and individuals with housing-focused case management, running a line to help people connect with available resources and coordinating referrals to housing programs for the homeless. 

Except for when temperatures drop below freezing, a Social Security number is required to access Nassau and Suffolk county-run shelters — which means individuals without documentation are excluded from those programs, although some charity and faith groups offer alternatives.

Victor Cruz warms himself by a fire on a cold March day at the migrant camp. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Cruz is uncertain how many people live in the Southampton homeless encampment. On a Friday in early March, he was there with another man chopping wood and a 20-year-old resting in a tent. Both declined to speak with reporters. 

Southampton Village Police Chief Suzanne Hurteau said the population there tends to fluctuate, with more individuals staying at the encampment when it's warm out. 

Newsday could not find Cruz on a second visit to the site to ask where he would go if the woods were cut. He does not have a phone or other device where he can be reached.

First come, last served

A bed and work boots inside the migrant camp in Southampton. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Cruz used to have an apartment by a Sunoco gas station, he said, but rent went up and it became too expensive, so he left.

“Before, the American dream, like they say, was to acquire papers,” he said in Spanish. But not anymore. Cruz and other migrants living homeless in the Hamptons said seeking citizenship gets harder the longer they’re in the country.

Immigration attorney T.J. Mills said individuals without documentation generally have a year after arriving in the country to apply for asylum, which has strict qualifications.

And, he said, it’s become harder for people who have been in the country for years to move through the documentation process.

“About three or four years ago, they changed their method of vetting these cases, where instead of going to the oldest cases that were filed … [they] focus on the new applicants,” he said, adding that he has clients who have been waiting for interviews for more than 10 years.

A 2022 Suffolk County report on poverty criticized the restrictiveness of federal immigration laws, arguing that limiting immigrants from entering the country legally has forced “many of Suffolk’s estimated 50,000 undocumented workers into an underground economy with worker exploitation and poverty wages.”

Cruz makes $12 for an hour of landscaping, and usually works 12 hours a day, he said. He didn't know that his pay falls short of Long Island’s minimum wage, which is $16 per hour.

An open secret

Living conditions include makeshift tents and housing at the migrant...

Living conditions include makeshift tents and housing at the migrant camp in Southampton. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

The camp in the woods is no secret in the Southampton community. Multiple advocates, politicians and residents described the location to Newsday reporters, and the homeless population there was discussed in 2022 hearings for the affordable housing proposal.

The owner of a store to the east of the site wrote in a letter to the town that he put up a fence separating the woods from his business because customers complained they “felt threatened and afraid for their safety from the people who were more or less living there.”

“We all knew this was going on but ignored it,” Terence McCulley, owner of Peconic Beverage Inc., said in the 2022 letter supporting the development.

So far in 2024, between Jan. 1 and March 31, Southampton Village police have not recorded any incidents involving unhoused individuals in the area. 

"There's not a huge call volume regarding [the camp]. There have been a few calls there where they actually call on one another if they're fighting amongst themselves," Hurteau said. 

People living in houses neighboring the camp mostly declined to comment when approached by Newsday, although a few said the camp’s inhabitants keep to themselves. One neighbor, who moved in a month ago, hadn’t been aware that the camp was there.

Michael Psomas, who moved into the neighborhood a month ago,...

Michael Psomas, who moved into the neighborhood a month ago, hadn’t been aware that the camp was there. "I'm speechless," he said. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

“I’m speechless,” said Michael Psomas, 34. “My best friend owns a house across the street here. We’ve walked around the neighborhood a million times.”

And yet, as well known as the camp is — one of many in the Hamptons, a region where homelessness has been an issue across demographics for decades — some charity groups that work with the homeless on the East End declined interviews about migrants living in the woods.

“I do think you'll find challenge speaking to people that are just trying to do work and at times not want to be in the papers, because while that draws support, that also sometimes draws controversy,” said Peggy Boyd, vice president of advocacy and community services at the Huntington-based Family Service League, a nonprofit that offers mental health, addiction, housing and essential human services.

LI struggles with high rent, home prices

To afford a home in Suffolk County, at a median price of $575,000, a family would need a yearly income of around $192,000, according to the county's 2022 poverty report. The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Suffolk, where rentals make up just 18% of housing stock, was $3,470 per month, according to the report.

$192,000 How much a family would need to earn annually to afford a home in Suffolk County at the median price of $575,000

“Our ongoing struggle with the lack of affordable and available housing, rental housing, rooms to rent — those are real challenges for Long Island,” Boyd said.

Every winter, Hurteau said, Southampton Village has a few more "local homeless people." They're very proud, she said. They don't want police help, although officers try to help them find shelter, especially when it gets too cold.

"We definitely need more resources" to help people experiencing homelessness, she said, "especially on the East End."

The Long Island Coalition for the Homeless recorded 3,536 individuals experiencing homelessness in a shelter or on the street throughout Long Island last January in the nonprofit's most recently published point-in-time count. A little more than 100 of those individuals, as veterans, could qualify to apply for apartments at Liberty Gardens.

Cruz is among those thousands experiencing homelessness on Long Island. He's not a veteran. And, as someone who is undocumented with little money, he's left with few alternatives for shelter. 

Huddled in a coat by the camp's fire on a cold evening in early March, Cruz said he does think sometimes that this is not the life he wanted.

“Who knows if I’ll live like I used to,” he said.

But what can he do about it? It is what it is, he said.

With Jasmine Anderson, Jocelyn Cruz, Randee Daddona and Steven Pfost

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