Suffolk County officials say they cannot provide long-term emergency housing to a dozen Latino day laborers living in the woods in Huntington Station because they are undocumented immigrants and are not eligible under county and state policies.
But the men - who said they were rousted by authorities from their "homes" in the woods on Tuesday and again on Thursday - say they will remain there because they have no other options.
"It's the only place we have," Nino Bonilla, 36, said in Spanish on Thursday as he used branches to start a fire, often his only source of heat, to cook some rice. He said there's little work for day laborers, and he has no money for rent.
Ed Hernandez, deputy commissioner for the Suffolk County Department of Social Services, said Suffolk follows a policy on the issue that is similar to places including Nassau and Westchester counties. He said the state, adhering to state and federal law, does not reimburse the county for housing undocumented immigrants because they lack legal immigration papers and are not eligible for most state- and federally-funded government services.
Hernandez said the county could house them and foot the bill itself, but that is not the practice. Anthony Farmer, a spokesman for the state Office of Temporary Disability Assistance, confirmed the state does not reimburse counties if they house undocumented immigrants short- or long-term.
He added: "There is nothing we have in law that would prevent counties from using their dollars to do that."
Nassau County has the same policy as Suffolk, said Karen Garber, a spokeswoman for that county's Department of Social Services. The county also does not house them because the state will not reimburse it for the cost, she said.
New York City, however, allows undocumented immigrants to stay in both overnight and all-day, longer-term shelters, said New York Department of Homeless Services spokeswoman Heather Janik.
Asked where the Huntington Station men should live, Hernandez said, "I'm not sure. It's a difficult situation."
He said he knew of no private initiatives to provide the men with long-term emergency housing. They can use county-run overnight shelters for a night or two, but eventually that will become problematic because of their immigration status, he said.
The Town of Huntington has posted signs on the tents saying the men could face fines of up to $15,000 and / or 6 months in jail for inhabiting unsafe structures. Officials also said the tents could be removed at any time.
Suffolk police said their interventions are humanitarian gestures aimed at preventing the men from freezing at night. They said they have urged them to go to overnight church shelters, which they usually do.
But Latino advocate Rev. Allan Ramirez, pastor at the Brookville Reformed Church, said, "It's not humanitarian to tear down the very shelter these men have and send them out to the streets. . . . It's savagery."