Homelessness: A national disgrace and a thorny local issue

After serving 17 years in state prison, Devon Toney returned to society unprepared for the challenges ahead.

Toney described parole as another high-pressure situation in a series of high-pressure environments he has experienced since childhood. The parole, he said, only made his post-traumatic stress disorder worse, hampering any possibility of upward growth.

He quickly entered the Suffolk County shelter system, traveling between homeless shelters and health care facilities, his last stay at the Linkage Center in Huntington. Eventually, feeling suffocated in the shelters and unable to sleep among strangers, he left that system for a life on the streets. At night, he slept in train stations, bus stations, canoes and public parks. By day he would steal, often reselling juice and water just to get by.

Without adequate resources and attention, Toney said the homeless “have to steal”, that life on the streets “causes clean people – healthy people – to become addicted because that’s all they have around”.

Toney remains homeless to this day, currently residing near Ross Memorial Park in Brentwood. Her story is one of countless examples of how easily one can become homeless after giving up shelter, falling through the cracks with little opportunity to rise above these dire circumstances. .

“This is probably one of the most difficult and complex moral and legal issues I deal with.”

—Jonathan Kornreich

A surprising trend

Mike Giuffrida, associate director of the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit that works across Long Island to determine better strategies and policies to address homelessness, said he’s noticed a trend recent to flee shelters.

“While emergency shelter is available for the majority of people who report as having nowhere to go, we are seeing an increase in the number of people who report as homeless and living on the streets,” a- he declared.

Motivating this shock of shelters, Giuffrida sees two main factors: “The greatest commonality of homeless people is…significant trauma, probably throughout most – if not all – of their lives,” he said. he declares. The second factor is the structure of the shelter system, which is limited by strict New York State guidelines and “may re-traumatize people or the shelters do not meet their needs.”

Aversion to community life is common among emergency accommodation seekers. In addition, occupants of these shelters are often asked to give up considerable portions of their income to pay for housing. “They are paying, in some cases, almost all of their income to stay in this unwanted place,” Giuffrida said.

Clusters of homeless encampments can be found in areas of Suffolk County. Brookhaven City Councilman Jonathan Kornreich (D-Stony Brook) says there are likely dozens of homeless people in his council’s district alone, mostly concentrated at the Port Jefferson train station.

Kornreich has complained about how limited he is in his ability to help, saying he wishes he could do more. “It’s probably one of the most difficult and complex moral and legal issues I deal with,” he said. “The City of Brookhaven has no social services or law enforcement functions, but as this is an area of ​​concern to me, I am trying to identify people who may be in need of services and j either try to talk to people myself or connect them to services.

These services are provided by the Suffolk County Department of Social Services. In an emailed statement, a DSS-affiliated spokesperson described the range of options available through the department.

“The Suffolk County Department of Social Services provides temporary housing, shelter assistance to eligible individuals and homeless families,” the spokesperson said. “We contract with non-profit organizations that provide case management services to each client based on their individual needs, with an emphasis on housing assistance. Services may include referrals to community agencies, mental health programs, and medical services. These services, with the support and encouragement of shelter staff, work together to transition homeless people to appropriate permanent housing resources.

In an interview, County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said the COVID-19 pandemic and nationwide economic challenges have only exacerbated homelessness conditions across the county. . Despite the external obstacles, he believes there is room for improvement.

“More could always be done, of course,” he said. “We are – as I have said many times before – coming out of COVID and grappling with impacts and effects that we will be dealing with for years to come that we do not yet fully understand.” He added: “The Department of Social Services has, throughout COVID, and as we have begun to emerge from it now, has worked very hard to fulfill its mission and will continue to do so.”

“The frustrating thing is that we are limited… We are limited in forcing a person to seek treatment.”

-Sarah Anker

Accepting services: a two-way street

Suffolk County Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) detailed Coram’s decades-long history of homelessness. She argues it is closely tied to other pressing issues facing the county government: public safety, access to health care, the opioid epidemic and inadequate compensation for social workers.

The county legislator also blamed the state’s strict guidelines for crippling DSS outreach efforts. “The frustrating part is we’re limited,” Anker said. “We are limited in forcing a person to seek treatment.”

Lawmaker Nick Caracappa (C-Selden), the majority leader of the county legislature, expressed similar frustrations. He expressed concern about the growing number of people rejecting DSS services.

“Even if you offer them help, you offer them shelter and you offer them medical care. [assistance], they often turn it down,” he said. “They’d rather be outside in the cold, alone, in the dark – whatever – than ask for help. And that’s worrying.

Emily Murphy, a licensed social worker who wrote a thesis on homelessness at Port Jefferson Station, said another significant issue is the lack of support for undocumented immigrants, whose immigration status affects them. prevents you from requesting services.

“It’s not a DSS decision, but it comes from above, that if you don’t have documentation, you can’t receive SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] benefits or shelter,” Murphy said.

That changes in the colder months, Murphy says, as shelters open their doors to everyone. Murphy also observed how a lack of political mobilization prevents the homeless community from receiving adequate government representation.

“That was the main thing,” Murphy said, referring to the homeless population. “It was a voice that was so often unheard and unheard.”

The gradual downward slope

Joel Blau, professor emeritus of the School of Social Welfare at Stony Brook University, has tracked homelessness trends for decades. He attributes the rise in homelessness in the United States since the 1970s to the stagnation of wages during this period, coupled with the rising cost of housing.

“The notion of someone with a high school diploma maintaining a decent standard of living is becoming increasingly elusive,” he said. “Housing prices, especially in cities, have gone up a lot, so unless you have two professionals in the family or someone who earns a lot of money, it’s increasingly difficult to get decent housing. .”

Today, an increasing number of people are just one step away from losing their homes. “Whether it’s an accident, illness or loss of a job, all of a sudden they’re collapsing in the street,” he said.

Assessing long-term projections for homelessness, Blau said there have been “periods when it levels off and periods when it gets worse”. Overall, he said, “the general trend is down.”

Blau thinks the way to fix the problem is to change the way society is organized. “It would require social housing, decommodifying it so that housing is a right, not something sold for profit,” he said. “And that’s probably, under the current political circumstances, a bridge too far.” In other words, the problems associated with homelessness in this country have been escalating for many years and are likely to persist.

“We need to let them know that we love them and care about them.” —Devon Toney

The Resurrection: A Reason for Hope

Toney partnered with Latoya Bazmore, also from Brentwood, to create AINT (All Include ‘N’ Treated), a grassroots organization to address homelessness in the community.

Toney said her main goal was to access adequate housing. After that, he intends to galvanize his peers in the community, serving as a beacon for those also going through the struggle of homelessness. As someone who has experienced homelessness firsthand and can relate to the predicament, Toney believes he is uniquely positioned to be an agent of change and a force for good.

“I have to be the one interacting with these gang members, these drug addicts…they need someone to explain things to them,” he said. “We have to comfort them. We need to let them know that we love them and care about them.

To learn more about the AINT project, please visit the AIN’T Facebook page (All Inclusive N Treated) or visit the group on Instagram: @everything.included.and.processed.