Long Island’s congressional delegation is voicing growing frustration with officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs, who have failed to reopen the department’s only Long Island shelter for homeless veterans more than a year after it closed.
In a letter to VA officials dated Wednesday, lawmakers said the shelter located on the grounds of the VA’s medical center in Northport is “vital” to the mission of caring for the needs of homeless veterans — many of whom depend on mental health and other offerings at the facility.
“After over a year of the on-site shelter remaining vacant, our offices continue to voice concern over VA’s intended time frame to bring homeless veterans back on campus,” the delegation wrote in a letter addressed to the VA’s regional director, Joan McInerney, and to Northport’s acting director, Cathy Cruise.
“... We find ourselves 16 months later with no vendor in place to provide this vital service to our community’s veterans,” delegation members wrote in the letter signed by Democrats Kathleen Rice and Tom Suozzi, and Republicans Peter King and Lee Zeldin.
"The number of 'street homeless' veterans is fewer than 10 in Nassau and Suffolk County combined," Northport's acting director Cruise said in an email late Friday. "No local homeless Veteran has ever been denied shelter or medical care, or has been displaced since the on-site homeless shelter was closed for renovations."
Northport officials originally said they would have the 44-bed facility in the medical center’s Building 11 opened by last August, in time to shelter homeless veterans during the winter season. The shelter closed in January 2018.
But after that deadline passed, VA officials said the renovation was complicated by new building codes, which required them to upgrade a fire-suppression system.
“Because of the rules and regulations associated with the federal contracting process, renovating building 11 up to code may take some time,” Northport VA spokesman Levi Spellman said in November. “That’s why Northport VAMC will begin to solicit bids for on-site temporary emergency housing in the near future.”
They also said then that United Veterans Beacon House Inc., the Bay Shore-based nonprofit that was contracted to operate the shelter, and which claims to have funneled more than $250,000 in charitable donations to renovate kitchens and bathrooms, paint interior spaces, install a computer resource room, and make other improvements to the facility, would have to compete with other bidders for a new operating contract.
VA officials repeatedly have promised members of Congress that they were close to having necessary renovations completed at the shelter. Northport leaders even took Zeldin and Suozzi on a walking tour late last year to show what they said was progress toward getting the building reopened.
Local and federal efforts are credited with having reduced the number of homeless vets in Nassau and Suffolk in recent years. Last year, veterans' homelessness on Long Island fell 4.25 percent, to 135 from 141. That is about a third of the number recorded in 2011, according to figures released by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
But those figures do not count the number of the near-homeless, who make do by sleeping on couches, bedding down in garages, or with other temporary accommodations, and who disproportionately struggle with psychological issues.
Beacon House CEO Frank Amalfitano has said the loss of the Northport facility is concerning because Beacon’s other shelters are typically near capacity. He also has said that because homeless veterans often need help with psychological issues and health problems, Northport’s ability to combine homeless services with clinical help makes it an asset that cannot easily be replaced.
“The closure of Northport’s on-site homeless shelter has forced veterans to find accommodations far from the medical services they need — the services that oftentimes help mitigate the root causes of homelessness,” the letter read. "We urge VA to do everything possible to expeditiously reopen Northport VAMC’s on-site homeless shelter as soon as possible to fulfill your department’s mission by serving and honoring the men and women who are America’s veterans.”