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Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal shelters homeless people

On Jan. 5, 2016, Joseph Gibbons opened the doors of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Roman Catholic Church in Wyandanch to the homeless. Every Tuesday night since then, clothes, food and a warm cot are available to anyone in need. (Credit: Newsday / Chuck Fadely)

By foot, train and car, some of Long Island’s homeless arrive on Tuesday nights at the parish hall at Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Roman Catholic Church in Wyandanch: 12 one Tuesday night, 15 on another, a changing cast with a few regulars.

One, Stephen, 59, said he spends his days in public libraries writing a novel and his nights in a burrow in the woods in Deer Park; a man who gave his name as Mario, 48, said he recently slept in a Long Island Rail Road train station and on the New York City subway.

About 3,800 Long Islanders lack a permanent place to live and as many as 300 are on the streets, according to estimates from the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless, which does a once-a-year count.

Inside the Miraculous Medal shelter, which opened in January as a Tuesday night-only shelter, there is hearty chicken soup cooked by the gallon, music on a radio and cots made up with sheets and blankets. Volunteers, mostly congregation members or employees of the church’s Gerald Ryan Outreach Center, do the cooking and greeting, then sleep in shifts throughout the night and clean the next day.

Guests leave Wednesday mornings after breakfast with a bagged snack and sometimes an article of clothing like long underwear, which the volunteers have bought in bulk. So far, they say, they’ve run the shelter on about $85 a week.

A handful of volunteer operations across Long Island do similar work, augmenting the county shelter systems by taking in people who are ineligible for government assistance or unwilling to stay in those shelters.

The more established, like Maureen’s Haven on the East End or the Huntington Interfaith Homeless Initiative, are partnerships involving dozens of houses of worship and hundreds of volunteers.

The shelters in the county systems “take care of a certain segment of the homeless, but there are some who will always fall through the cracks and are in particular need of shelter in the very cold and very inclement weather,” said the Rev. Bill Brisotti, the longtime pastor of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. “It’s an integral part of the vision and mission of our church.”

Miraculous Medal now partners with Our Lady of Perpetual Help, in Lindenhurst, which provides toiletries and shuttles some of the guests from the Babylon LIRR station. Greta Guarton, executive director of Long Island Coalition for the Homeless, said that finding more partners willing to provide shelters will keep human and financial resources from being stretched thin.

“The more community support there is for this program, the longer it’ll be sustainable,” she said.

Joseph Gibbons, a retired AT&T executive from Lindenhurst who helped start the shelter, said that search is already underway.

“We need other parishes to take a night,” he said. Once other neighboring houses of worship see that the model works, he said, “more will come.” He envisions a group large enough to rotate hosting duties every weeknight.

Stephen, who said he has lived outside for about a year and avoids shelters in the county system because of overcrowding and violence, said even the one night has made life more enjoyable.

“Sunday comes, and I’m looking forward to coming here on Tuesday,” he said. “This is my special day. It’s almost like a birthday.”

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