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Helping the homeless amid the pandemic

Closed shelter program still provides support


For 22 years, Thanksgiving Day has marked the start of the North Shore Sheltering Program at First Presbyterian Church in Glen Cove, which welcomes local homeless men to stay the night and escape the cold.

This year, however, the program, which traditionally runs through the beginning of spring, will be unable to operate because of the coronavirus pandemic. Even after hours of brainstorming, volunteers came to the conclusion that it was simply impossible to house the men without potentially exposing them and the volunteers to Covid-19.

“The way that we’ve been functioning for the past 22 years is, we rent a big room in the church,” said Gustavo Gitlin, the cantor of Congregation Tifereth Israel and the president of the program’s board of trustees. “Up to 25 to 30 men sleep in one room. For 22 years it wasn’t a problem. It was warm, and we fed them dinner and a breakfast and kept them safe and warm.”

This year, volunteers for the program, which is funded by private donations, plan to keep in touch with the men and let them know about other options. “We’ve been reaching out to the men, our clients, and we’re trying to help them relocate for the winter,” Gitlin explained. “We have different options, and we already found rooms for six or seven. We’re paying for those rooms, and we’re offering [guidance] on how to go to [the Nassau County Department of Social Services] and find other shelters in Hempstead and to make plans, not to wait until the last minute.”

Gitlin said that volunteers have been able to reach most of the men the program usually works with and help them find shelter this winter, while others have alternative plans.

“It’s always unpleasant to be homeless, but in the winter it just becomes almost life-threatening,” said Christine Scaffner, the program’s senior counselor, also a volunteer. “. . . Myself and a coworker are continuing to meet with the guys. If they do have phones, we’ve found pretty creative ways to reach them. We use [Facebook] Messenger or email, as some of them aren’t on social media.”

Besides discussing resources with the men, Scaffner and another volunteer have provided them with sweatshirts, sleeping bags and other necessities.

Among the greatest challenges for the men this year is finding a place to go during the day. Before the coronavirus spread to New York, they spent time at coffee houses or cafés, the Glen Cove Public Library or the Glen Cove Senior Center. Most of those places are no longer available.

“Now, quite a few of them are off the streets because of our help or the [Department of Social Services],” Scaffner said. “Walking into any store or buying a coffee or whatever, or even just sitting there for a while, that’s not an option for them so much anymore. They’re kind of just walking the streets, the ones that remain homeless.”

Finding jobs during the spring, summer and fall was also a challenge for some of the men. “A few of them have said that when they look into landscaping and things like that, they’re told that they don’t want to take on new people because they would rather just keep the people they have,” Scaffner said. “They know who they are and where they’re going. [But] quite a few of them have found work — at least temporary work.”

The North Shore Soup Kitchen, which used to serve the men, among others in need of food assistance, was forced to shut down because of the pandemic. “So we made an arrangement with a local deli to give the homeless men [meals] three days a week just like we used to at the kitchen,” said Madeline Rubenstein, the board chair of the soup kitchen.

Rubenstein was unable to provide the name of the deli that the soup kitchen has been paying to provide the men with meals.

“Our mission is to keep them safe and alive,” Gitlin said. “That’s what we’re sticking to. We’re trying to make sure that they’ll be fine and that they’ll be safe over the wintertime.”

To donate to the North Shore Sheltering Program or to learn more about it, go to www.northshoreshelteringprogram.org.