The Riverhead-based Maureen’s Haven is pushing through another pandemic winter to provide shelter, food and more to the East End’s homeless population.
According to Maureen’s Haven Executive Director Daniel O’Shea, the number of people the organization’s winter shelter program is serving has been “through the roof” since before Christmas. While the program usually takes in 30 to 35 people in an average year, the last few weeks have seen that number increase to as many as 50 people, O’Shea said.
Since November, the program has provided overnight shelter to more than 105 individuals, he said.
“In many ways, we’ve been scrambling to keep all the folks that we have sheltered every night,” he said. “It really has been a challenge. More so than it has been in the past, certainly more so than it was last year.”
The Maureen’s Haven emergency winter shelter program operates seven days a week from the beginning of November to the end of April. Starting around 8 a.m., homeless people are invited to spend their day at the program’s day-center at 28 Lincoln Street in Riverhead, where they are granted access to support services and resources to fulfill their needs, including information such as how to register for housing programs, how to receive medical services and how to obtain a driver’s license.
Around 5 p.m. the program’s guests are screened and transported by bus to a rotating group of host sites — which are often houses of worship across the East End and include Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Aquebogue, St. Agnes Church in Greenport and the First Presbyterian Church in Southampton — which feed and shelter guests for the night.
The next morning, they’ll receive breakfast, a to-go lunch and transportation back to Riverhead. “And we repeat that whole thing all over again,” O’Shea said.
Maureen’s Haven relies on community members — religious or not — who volunteer their mornings and evenings to support the program.
“So even though we’re physically at that building, you see every community across Eastern Long Island. It’s not just that church or that congregation, it’s the youth groups, it’s the honor societies, the Boy Scouts, the local business, it’s the other congregations that come from the area that really rally for us,” O’Shea said.
O’Shea said the scarcity of Suffolk County Social Services-sponsored transitional housing over the past year has been one of the biggest challenges for the program, as much of that demand has fallen on them.
“I know they are working tirelessly to bring a lot of those beds back online,” O’Shea said. “But one of the challenges that I believe they’re facing is also staffing, like everybody else right now.”
The coronavirus pandemic has been a challenge for the program and has even changed the way Maureen’s Haven operates. In years prior, the shelter program would be operated mostly by volunteers. Now, a majority of the winter shelter program’s staff is paid.
Although it has been a big challenge, Maureen’s Haven has survived through the pandemic because of its staff, who sometimes work consecutive overnight shifts, O’Shea said.
“The staff that I have now has just been amazing. They have been working tirelessly. They have not shuttered once in the face of COVID or anything,” he said.
The pandemic is a large threat to the homeless, who often live in condensed spaces and are more likely to be older adults and have underlying medical conditions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Thankfully the organization has had few coronavirus scares and no major illnesses, O’Shea said.
“Early on, we were extremely aggressive with getting tested. And then once the vaccinations came available, we were just extremely aggressive getting people vaccinated to the point now where we probably have about an 85% to 90% vaccination rate of those who use the service nightly,” O’Shea said.
O’Shea said that effort has continued and Maureen’s Haven has helped the homeless to schedule the first appointment for a vaccine possible and provide them the means to get there. “In the last year, I’ve sent guests to about 25 to 30 different vaccination sites alone,” he said.
Maureen’s Haven is accepting donations of personal hygiene items, lightly used or new clothing, food and COVID-19 related items at their day center, according to their website. However, O’Shea’s biggest ask from the community is for financial donations to cover expenses related to the pandemic and to maintain its staff. “It really does go a long way and it really does make a difference in what we do here,” he said.
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