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OPINION: Treat the homeless with compassion

Frances Cerra Whittelsey is a writer and community activist in Huntington.

Claiming they were acting out of compassion, on Tuesday Huntington Town officials and Suffolk County Police moved a dozen day laborers out of their makeshift homes in a wooded area near Huntington Station. The men have been living outdoors in this frigid weather, except when they take advantage of an overnight shelter program offered by a coalition of churches and synagogues known as the Huntington Interfaith Homeless Initiative, or HIHI.

The houses of worship take turns opening their buildings every night to bed down the day laborers and feed them a hot dinner, breakfast and a bag lunch. The program runs all winter and was started six years ago, out of concern that the men could die in the cold. A Honduran immigrant was found dead in the tent encampment in February 2007, but whether hypothermia was a factor is in dispute.

HIHI, which I helped start, makes an enormous difference to the men. Each house of worship offers them some recreation during the evening and, intermittently, educational programs, and access to Alcoholics Anonymous and other services. But it's a Band-Aid on the twin problems of illegal immigration and the high price of housing. The churches and synagogues cannot shelter the men during the day, so they leave at daybreak and have nowhere to go to stay warm - except those crude shelters, from which they were driven this week.

Where is the compassion in rousting the men without giving them an alternative out of the cold?

New York City offers shelter to any homeless person regardless of immigration status, and the numerous public buildings, subway stations and other structures make it possible for the homeless to find someplace to get warm. The city, in fact, has a cold weather plan for helping the homeless. Workers sweep the streets, actively urging the homeless to go to a shelter when the temperature drops below freezing.

Suffolk County offers one night's shelter to anyone, but after that helps only legal residents. Huntington Town itself operates no shelter at all. This leaves the problem in the hands of the religious organizations of HIHI, but when day breaks, the homeless are on their own. A homeless person who tries to stay inside a Long Island Rail Road Station, one of the few public buildings in our suburban communities, will be quickly chased out. We treat stray dogs better than this.

We benefit as a community from the day laborers building our roofs, mowing our lawns, washing our dishes and digging our gardens. But when winter comes and there are few jobs for them, they become invisible - all that matters in the dead of winter is that they don't have legal status. Fearing the anger of anti-immigrant zealots, public officials refuse to offer them shelter.

It doesn't have to be this way. For example, there is a little-used New York State Armory within a few hundred yards of where the men in Huntington have been living outdoors. Why can't it be open as a drop-in shelter to anyone who needs it during the day? If that's not possible, how about finding some other little-used building that could serve in this frigid weather?

Another idea that would help next winter would be constructing a rooming house as low-cost, emergency housing for the homeless, regardless of legal status. Huntington has one rooming house that has quietly existed for decades. A small, basic room is certainly more desirable than the alternatives.

When we started HIHI, we expected it would be a temporary and partial response to the problem of homeless, undocumented men. But the failure of the U.S. Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform has left us with this ongoing responsibility.

It's time for Suffolk County and Huntington Town to do more, to show true compassion by developing a cold-weather plan that helps the homeless who are living outdoors, not just in Huntington, but in other parts of the county as well.

We can't fix the immigration laws ourselves. But we can act humanely to ensure that no homeless person suffers in the cold.

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