By Anthony Murray and Kimberly Donahue
If the aggressive panhandling bill that is being proposed by the Village of Mineola passes, homeless panhandlers who ask commuters for money still have resources where they can receive help and get themselves off the streets. Organizations such as The INN in Hempstead and Winthrop Hospital right here in Mineola have resources to help those who are truly in need of assistance.
The INN, a nonprofit organization, has been working with homelessness and hunger on Long Island for the past 35 years. The INN operates emergency shelters, a long-term housing program as well as the Mary Brennan INN, which is the island’s largest soup kitchen.
The Center for Transformative Change (CTC) is the INN’s most recent endeavor that opened in early 2016. According to Joanne Robinson, the managing director of the INN, the staff learned valuable information about their regular guests, which served as starting points to assist them in getting the help they needed.
“We’ve found people who are literally homeless [who are] eligible for social security and they didn’t know,” said Robinson. “What’s so interesting to me is if we weren’t there to sit down with some of these people and figure out how to help them, a lot of people would have just continued to be homeless.”
Many staff members at the CTC have professional backgrounds that involve social work. Visitors can set up an appointment with a volunteer and discuss what kind of help they think they need such as getting identification, a place to live or working on their resume to find a job.
So far, the CTC has served more than 3,000 individuals who have received access to meals, clothing, showers and use of computers. More than 150 visitors have received ID documents where 50 visitors have recently secured employment. More than 400 guests have received assistance with their government benefits and nearly 20 profoundly homeless individuals have accessed either permanent supportive housing or housing within the local housing authority.
Robinson said their location next to the soup kitchen has largely contributed to the success stories at the INN.
“The trust factor is huge,” said Robinson. “The soup kitchen has been there for such a long time and they know that the kitchen is really only there to help them so they feel comfortable enough to try to use the CTC. They know it’s us. I think we may be fairly unique, certainly at least in Hempstead.”
So why might panhandling seem to be increasing near the Mineola train station? Robinson said it might be due to the lack of knowledge of the existence of the INN and its services. She believes one solution in the future might be the establishment of additional CTCs so more people can use its services.
“Direct the person to a place where someone can help them,” suggested Robinson who is aware that some commuters at the train station may feel uncomfortable when someone asks them for money. “[The situation] is disturbing, it’s upsetting. It seems to be increasing and it’s surprising given that the economy is supposedly so good but not so good for those at the lower end of the income scale.”
Winthrop Hospital, which is just steps away from the Mineola train station, also offers services to help the homeless.
“The challenges are many and the resources are limited. Optimally, for those that have Medicaid but are not functioning well in the community and have chronic conditions, which can include a persistent mental health condition, we try to arrange for them to get help through the state’s Health Home program,” said senior vice president at NYU Winthrop Hospital, J. Edmund Keating.
The Health Home program offers intensive case coordination and operates under a ‘whole-person’ philosophy, integrating and coordinating all primary, acute, behavioral health and long-term services and support to treat the whole person. However, the hospital has limited success in enrolling homeless people into the program because the person must be contactable. Most of the homeless population in the area do not have cell phones according to Keating.
The Long Island Coalition for the Homeless has a new program for those who are chronically homeless. If a patient is agreeable, Winthrop Hospital will fill out the referral documents to get a person into the program, which offers case management and some housing options. In that program, the case managers will go into the field to try to locate the homeless person.
“We can also refer patients to the Department of Social Services (DSS) upon discharge when our social workers complete referral forms used to determine eligibility, arrange transportation and ensure the patient has a three-day supply of discharging medications,” explained Keating. “But that can be a challenging process because many of the homeless can’t provide supporting documentation required such as income verification and expense receipts. We experience greater success with housing during winter months when the governor issues an executive order to protect homeless individuals when temperatures fall to 32 or below.”
Detective Maureen Roach of the Nassau County Police Department Public Information Office said the best way people can feel safe at the train station is to simply be polite and tell any aggressive panhandlers that they aren’t interested and walk away.
“If the person is persistent and continues to follow and ask for money or anything of that nature, go find a police officer. If they’re not there, call 911 and say that you’re being harassed by a person asking for money and an officer will come there and take care of the situation,” said Roach. “If at any time people feel like they are going to be threatened they need to get to a safe distance from the person and call the police.”
Mayor Scott Strauss said the village will continue to work with homeless advocates and agencies within the county to get people homes and jobs.
“Whatever the Village of Mineola can do to help Nassau County we certainly will,” said Strauss. “We’ve worked with them hand in hand. Homelessness is an unfortunate way of life for some people. Some people need to be hand-held to get some of the assistance they need. The homeless outreach programs are doing a tremendous job to give them assistance that they need. Everyone in their lives has peaks and valleys. For some, the valleys are a little bit lower for others and we as a community, need to help those people get back on their feet.”