Christine Argiros said she knew what she would be doing on a recent Friday night if she hadn’t come to Ascension Lutheran Church in Deer Park.
She’d be on the street, said Argiros, 42, who is homeless.
Now, thanks to a growing church-led initiative to feed and house the needy in Babylon Town during the cold winter months, Argiros and others can find warm meals and a safe place to sleep three nights a week without having to apply for Suffolk County’s temporary assistance program.
“Places like this, it’s salvation for some of us,” Argiros said of Ascension.
What began with a single church in Wyandanch offering three meals and a cot once a week in the winter has expanded to four churches in the town accommodating around 50 Long Islanders on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday nights from December through March.
The overnight stays fill critical gaps in Suffolk County’s social safety net, officials say.
“We pick up the folks who fall through the cracks,” said Joseph Gibbons, one of the program’s organizers.
The churches ask little of the guests beyond good behavior and refraining from drinking or doing drugs during their stay. The churches conduct light pat-downs of guests at the beginning of the night to make sure they are not carrying weapons, drugs or alcohol, Gibbons said. Two of the churches also take guests’ bags from them until the morning, he said.
Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, a Roman Catholic church in Wyandanch where Gibbons is a parishioner, was the first of the Babylon churches to shelter the homeless one night a week last winter, he said.
“The whole idea originally was to keep our parishioners from freezing to death in the woods,” said Gibbons, who is also president of the church’s outreach center board.
This winter, other churches followed. Our Lady of the Assumption, a Roman Catholic church in Copiague, now hosts homeless people on Wednesday nights, Gibbons said, with Ascension Lutheran taking Fridays. The Roman Catholic Church Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Lindenhurst offers transportation to the other church’s guests Tuesday and Wednesday nights.
The nondenominational CenterPoint Church in Bay Shore also hosts the homeless on Monday nights, Gibbons said, although it is currently not affiliated with the Babylon initiative.
Argiros and others have begun attending all four nights — drawn, they say, by the hearty meals, relaxed atmosphere, and humane treatment from the organizers.
“These people help you personally,” she said. “You feel like a human.”
She was one of about 28 people to spend a night recently at Ascension, where they were treated to mobile showers, clean clothes, a dinner of spaghetti and meatballs, a movie screening, cots with bedding, and breakfast and lunch the next day.
The Rev. Justin Lathrop, Ascension’s senior pastor, said congregants were initially reluctant to host the event, fearful that the guests might be dangerous or damage the church.
“In the end,” Lathrop said, “We had decided that there were 1,000 reasons why we should not do it, and only one reason that we should — because it’s what Jesus calls us to do. And it’s the right thing to do.”
Lathrop said some homeless guests have told him they find the Suffolk County shelters unsafe or remote, so they opt for the church shelters instead of those funded by the county.
Traci Barnes, an official with the county’s Department of Social Services, said Suffolk strives to shelter qualifying homeless residents near their places of work and their children’s school districts whenever possible.
She said that the church shelters provide for those who may not always qualify for the county’s emergency shelters, such as immigrants living in the United States illegally and those “sanctioned” for misbehavior in a county-funded shelter or other violations of state guidelines.
Barnes noted, however, that county-funded shelters take in anyone in need on winter nights when the temperature drops below freezing.
Greta Guarton, the executive director of the nonprofit Long Island Coalition for the Homeless, said Long Island’s homeless population has grown in recent years, as the foreclosure crisis and then superstorm Sandy displaced many people and reduced the stock of low-cost housing on the Island.
There are currently about 4,000 homeless people in Nassau and Suffolk counties, Guarton said.
Guarton praised the Babylon church shelters.
“In the winter months, programs such as those save lives,” she said.
But she stressed that they are temporary, not permanent, solutions.
“The end goal should always be permanent housing,” she said.