At around 5:50 p.m. every day during the colder months, a group of 10 or so men wait by the side door of the First Presbyterian Church in Glen Cove. Between the hours of 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., the church is as close as they can get to something resembling a home.
Before they were let into the church on Tuesday, one man, speaking Spanish, complimented a friend on his bright yellow, reflective jacket. Another called out, “Well, here comes Smiley.” Smiley, dragging a piece of wheeled luggage, looked up and grinned even wider.
Once inside the church, the men gave their names to a North Shore Sheltering Program staffer and went upstairs to retrieve their sleeping gear, which they brought back down and laid out on the floor in neat rows. Some used wet wipes to clean the floor around them. Some gathered in folding chairs around a TV in the corner. Many simply changed their clothes, got into their sleeping bags and closed their eyes.
On April 1, the church will close its doors to them until November, when the cold returns. For some, like Sky, who didn’t want to give his last name, it will mean sleeping outdoors, at least for a little while. Sky said that of the 30 or so men who relied on NSSP over the winter, about 25 of them would be spending their nights outside.
Justin Hicks, a counselor at the Mellilo Center for Mental Health and an overnight staffer for NSSP, said that when it comes to finding shelter, “You kind of have to get lucky, because housing on Long Island is so expensive.” He said that one of the homeless men who uses NSSP works full time, seven days a week, at a carwash in Sea Cliff. “There’s no reason he shouldn’t be able to pay for a place,” Hicks said, “except that it costs so much.”
For one older man, who works part-time as a paralegal and asked that his name not be used so that his clients would not learn about his situation, the closing of the church will mean living in his car in one of the downtown parking garages and showering at a nearby gym, where he’s a member.
Because of complaints from local establishments about the men — that they hang out in coffee shops without buying anything, that children at the library are frightened of them — the NSSP is exploring ways to provide a more permanent, more useful resource for homeless people in Glen Cove.
“Whether it’s the winter or the summer, our 365-days-a-year issue is that during the day, these men have nowhere to go,” Deputy Mayor Maureen Basdavanos said. “Whenever they leave the shelter, or wherever they’re staying, they’re looking for someplace to go.”
Basdavanos has taken an active role in encouraging civic leaders to come up with a solution. Representatives of Glen Cove institutions, including the library, the senior center and the Police Department, met twice in March, and she hopes they will be able to come up with something.
“We’re throwing around a lot of ideas,” she said. “Whether it’s through fundraising, whether we expand a part of the sheltering program that’s going on now, whether it’s bringing our churches together and having everyone pitch in just a little bit, I feel really positive that we’re going to be able to find some sort of solution.”
Cantor Gustavo Gitlin, of Congregation Tifereth Israel, the president of NSSP’s board of trustees, said he wasn’t comfortable discussing specifics, because the process is just getting started. “There are conversations,” he said of the discussions in Basdavanos’s group, “but there’s nothing firm.”
Gitlin did say that the conversations included the North Shore Soup Kitchen, which is open all year, and that the ideal facility would resemble “what might be called a wellness center.”
“Something like that would probably do a lot of good,” Hicks said. “A space where they could work toward goals they might have, that would be great.” He added, “A lot like a library.”
Basdavanos said that the solution is simple. All homeless people need is a room furnished with “some tables and chairs, possibly a television, some cards, some newspapers, some snacks,” she said, adding that the challenges are “rent and supervision.”
When she brought up her group’s efforts at a recent meeting at City Hall, Ann Fangmann, the executive director of the Glen Cove Community Development Agency, said she would look into grant opportunities that could help pay for solutions to the “365-days-a-year issue,” and added that although she had one in mind that she considered a promising, if competitive, option, there wouldn’t be enough time to put together a proposal for this year before the deadline. The CDA, Fangmann said, would work with Basdavanos’s group on a proposal for next year.
In the meantime, Hicks noted, the current NSSP setup “is all donations-based, no federal money, no city money. A few big donors and local churches,” he said, but that’s it.
Basdavanos said she thought local clergy would play a large role in the solution, but Gitlin resisted distinguishing between clergy and lay people. “What’s the role of clergy?” he asked rhetorically. “It’s no different from any other person. We’re here to fix the world, one mitzvah” — Hebrew for good deed — “at a time . . . We, as a community, we want to take care of our people. And that’s important. It’s our people.
“This is a very affluent area,” Gitlin continued. “Nobody should go hungry, nobody should go homeless in this area. It’s a shande.” That’s Yiddish for scandal, or shame.