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Mattituck church helps homeless each week

Ryan Cavanaugh, 15, of Hampton Bays, volunteers at

Ryan Cavanaugh, 15, of Hampton Bays, volunteers at John's Place homeless outreach program at Mattituck Presbyterian Church. (Jan. 12, 2011) Credit: Erin Geismar

Burgers were sizzling on a grill outside the Mattituck Presbyterian Church and a dedicated crew of volunteers was set up in the kitchen ready to serve dinner for between 40 and 80 people.

The diners -- all homeless -- would come through the doors in droves from locations on the East End, but it is hard to know exactly how many will show every Thursday.

At John’s Place, the weekly homeless outreach program hosted by Mattituck Presbyterian and by St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church in Greenport, the most homeless that have attended in one night was 85, said Caren Heacock, pastoral care assistant at the Mattituck church.

“Most people think it’s the North Fork, it’s the Hamptons, there are no homeless people there,” Heacock said. “But we know we are only scratching the surface.”

Through the program, the homeless are offered a place to sleep and shower, dinner, breakfast the next morning and a bagged lunch to take with them when they leave. They are also given toiletries upon arriving, including a clean pair of socks. They are screened for drugs and alcohol before being admitted.

But according to the people who were there, the program is about much more than those basics.

“The atmosphere is that of a family,” said Brian, 61, who was living in Medford before he became homeless three years ago, and has been hopping from shelter to shelter almost every night since then. “We watch out for each other.”

Brian, who declined to give his last name, was one of about 50 people who came to the church Thursday night.

Heacock was instrumental in bringing the outreach program to Mattituck about 10 years ago under the name Maureen’s Haven, a program directed by the Peconic Community Council on the North and South forks.

Last November, Mattituck Presbyterian and St. Agnes broke away from Maureen’s Haven to start John’s Place, under the auspices of the homeless advocacy group Mercy Haven in Islip Terrace.

Denis Yuen, the former director of Maureen’s Haven who is now a screener for John’s Place, said what’s important are the people who make the program work.

“This group of people is still wonderful,” he said. “That has not changed.”

Heacock said a core group of about 10 volunteers at Mattituck Presbyterian are what make John’s Place so much more than just a shelter. Other volunteers include members of neighboring churches and Mattituck Presbyterian’s own Sunday School classes.

“They are really the backbone of this all,” she said. “They are here every week.”

She said since operating on their own, funding for the program has become even more difficult to come by, especially because each guest is given a round trip bus ticket to get to and from the church.

Most of the funding comes from individual donations and fundraisers, she said. On Jan. 28, the organization will hold the Fourth Annual Rockin’ for the Homeless Benefit Concert at the Polish Hall in Riverhead with proceeds going to John’s Place.

Jill DeSantis, 44, of Mattituck, has been volunteering for the program since it began as Maureen’s Haven. About six years ago, DeSantis lost most of her sight because of a medical condition, which she said has limited what she can do to help. But she comes every week if only so the homeless see a familiar face.

Before most of the guests had arrived, one man knelt down in front of the chair where DeSantis was sitting and introduced himself. He hadn’t needed the shelter for a few weeks, but mounting medical bills brought him back.

“Well, I’m sorry you need us but I’m happy you’re back,” DeSantis told him, before promising to join him for dinner.

“I can still listen to them,” DeSantis said about her role as a volunteer. “That’s what I do here.”

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