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Powell: Sandy adds to Long Island's homeless population

Participants raise candles at the 2011 version of

Participants raise candles at the 2011 version of the annual Have a Heart for the Homeless vigil at Farmingdale State College. The 2013 event will be conducted at 6 p.m. on Feb. 13. The event raises awareness about homeless people and the need for affordable housing on Long Island. (Feb. 9, 2011) Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

The Long Island Coalition for the Homeless will hold its annual Have a Heart for the Homeless candlelight vigil from 6 to 8 p.m. on Wednesday at Farmingdale State College to raise awareness about the growing problem of homelessness on Long Island. This year, that includes people who lost their homes to superstorm Sandy. 

But who is it that needs to be made aware? Not those who have been personally affected by homelessness. Whether they have experienced it firsthand or watched their loved ones struggle, they know all too well.

It’s lawmakers who need to open their eyes.

This is by no means a new problem. The coalition was established in 1985. That was 28 years ago.

And the problem hasn’t disappeared. The number of homeless individuals in both Suffolk and Nassau has been rising in recent years.

In January 2012, the organization counted 2,468 homeless people in Suffolk and 891 in Nassau. In January 2009 the figures were 1,942 individuals in Suffolk, and 697 people in Nassau.

The coalition did its annual “point-in-time” count of homelessness for 2013 on Jan. 23. The findings include those living in shelters, but does not account for those facing eviction or living in substandard conditions. 

Greta Guarton, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless, says that when 2013’s numbers are officially released soon, they will be higher if only because residents of about 1,000 households were still in shelters or other temporary housing after being displaced by superstorm Sandy. She says that even absent the Sandy victims, she thinks the numbers of homeless individuals will be up again.

Many larger forces -- nationwide unemployment, foreclosures -- have contributed to the rise. But if the problem has been exacerbated in recent years, shouldn’t more energy be put into finding solutions?

Now it’s time to establish permanent solutions -- more shelters, transitional housing and low-cost housing.

Organizations and individuals are right to do all they can to alleviate the pains of homelessness. On Wednesday night, the coalition will provide services like free financial literacy sessions and haircuts. Items including winter coats and nonperishable food items will be collected and distributed. Most important, attention will again be drawn to the issue.

Nudging town and county legislators to try new ways to eradicate homelessness while reminding the public of people among us who are less fortunate is something we must be vigilant about.

Christine Powell, a Newsday intern, is a junior studying journalism at Stony Brook University.