Olimpio Colon, who has been homeless in Riverhead for 17 years, says he longs for housing of his own. Photo: April Pokorny

When your feet hurt, everything hurts. Anyone who spends a lot of time on their feet — hair stylists, mail carriers, policemen walking a beat and others — knows this to be true.

If you’re homeless, you often have no choice but to be on your feet. Walking is your primary means of transportation. Often your shoes are ill-fitting shoes and your socks are wet. That combination can make for blisters, athlete’s foot and sore, aching feet.

Every week a group of about a dozen nursing students arrives at Maureen’s Haven Day Center on Lincoln Street to minister to the center’s clients by caring for their feet.

The students fill basins with warm water and soon the feet of homeless men and women are soaking in the plastic tubs.

Soon murmurs of “that feels good” and “ahhh” and small talk hum in the air.

Maureen’s Haven and Eastern Suffolk BOCES have teamed up to provide foot care for homeless people in the Riverhead community. Every Wednesday, Maureen’s Haven hosts a free foot clinic where its are clients are offered a good soak in warm water, toenail care, careful washing and drying from toes to ankles — along with such niceties as powder and a maybe a new pair or two of socks.

Arlene Marsh of Mastic hasn’t been homeless for too long — a fire and high carbon monoxide levels have prevented her from returning home for a couple of weeks. A friend told her about Maureen’s Haven. She says she’s grateful for the help she’s gotten at the shelter.

“They supply every basic need we have,” she said smiling.

Maureen’s Haven distributes donated Bombas socks. Photo: April Pokorny

Under the direction of instructor Paula Arturi, the Eastern Suffolk BOCES nursing students provide the much-needed and much-appreciated foot care, question their patients and record clinical notes. Anything that looks like it needs medical attention is noted and the patient is referred to a podiatrist or a doctor. The time at the clinic fulfills mandatory credit hours for clinical work and practice with bedside manner, so the clinic benefits the students, too.

“I really enjoy doing this because we get to interact with them. It feels good to give them more than they have. You can see their mood change during the foot clinic,” said nursing student Maricela España.

Interaction with the student nurses is also invaluable to homeless clients, according to Maureen’s Haven executive director Daniel O’Shea.

“For one thing, it may get some of our guests to seek medical attention, which they are often reluctant to do,” he said. “And it’s good for them to be able to connect with others.”

The foot clinic is just a small part of Maureen’s Haven outreach. It’s much more than a warm bed on a cold night, although it is that, too. O’Shea’s objective is really case management he says. His ambition is to get each homeless person what they need to become permanently housed, whether it’s health or mental care, a job, a GED or enrollment in college, reconnection with their family members, a ride to a job interview or any other immediately pressing concern. O’Shea and his staff at the day center, Christian Kilminster and Jennifer Troiano, spend much of their time directly involved with helping the shelter’s guests fill those needs.

O’Shea says he’s seen an increase in the population of homeless women and seniors. Forty percent of the organization’s clients are women and 35 percent are older than 55, O’Shea estimated.

An older woman who declined to give her name said she’d been homeless for four or five months. She had been living with her sister, but “she put me out,” she said. “It’s tough.” Tears glistened in her eyes. “I don’t even like to talk about it.”

“We’re a grass roots agency,” O’Shea said. “As such, we’re able to fill in the gaps that other agencies can’t.”

“We charge nothing for the services we provide,” he continued, “and we couldn’t do it without our volunteers and donations, but the best contribution we can get is cash. Looking toward the future, I’m trying to plan for speed bumps in the economy that are bound to happen.”

Waiting his turn for the clinic, the shelter’s homeless client known by the name Cleveland, had a lot to say.

“The truth is that tourists and rich people don’t want us around. The world needs to know the truth. When I was a little boy I stood and said the Pledge of Allegiance with everyone else — ‘one nation for all’ — but it’s not,” he said as he stood, hand over heart.

“The homeless are ignored. I feel forgotten.”

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April Pokorny
April is a writer, reporter and copy editor for the LOCAL news websites. She is a retired educator and proud grandma. April lives in Calverton. Email April