This Is Not My Beautiful House
Though the figures vary depending on whose definition of homelessness you use, there are between 2,000 and 11,000 homeless veterans on Long Island right now. They’re sleeping on couches, in cars, in abandoned buildings and even in the wooded sections of the median strip of the Northern State Parkway.
“We go out and count them every year,” Yngstrom says. “I can tell you there are pockets of veterans along the parkways because I’ve walked into some of these places and been told to forget I was there! So, I say, ‘OK, if that’s what you want.’”
According to advocates for homeless veterans, there are more than 200 units of transitional housing run by a loose consortium of groups like the United Veterans Beacon House, Suffolk County United Veterans, Family & Children’s Association and the Interfaith Nutrition Network. And Long Island could use more, but finding locations is an uphill battle.
“People ride around in SUVs with stickers that say, ‘Support Our Troops,’ but when a group home or a transitional home for vets is proposed for their neighborhood, they turn out in opposition,” says Jim Smith, a member of the Veterans Health Alliance of Long Island, which includes more than 70 providers of veterans services. Through his church group, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset, Smith helped organize a conference to raise awareness of veterans’ needs in November.
“Vietnam vets are sort of riding the coattails of the public’s love for the current troops,” says Smith, who’s also a member of Veterans for Peace. “Whereas the Vietnam vets years ago were derided and criticized, these days people are realizing that they were just part of the green machine that went and did their jobs, so they’re receiving more respect in general.”
Frank Amalfitano of United Veterans Beacon House, based in Bay Shore, runs a transitional housing program that can accommodate up to 115 veterans who’ve suffered from drug, alcohol and PTSD problems. “I don’t sell it to the neighborhood—I prove it to the community,” he says. “I’ve been to community board meetings where the neighbors are all up in arms,” he recalls. “When they hear the words ‘sober house,’ they think of drugs and alcohol, and they think ‘crack house.’ They don’t know what’s going on in there.”
His houses, two in Nassau and 14 in Suffolk, have strict rules of conduct, with house managers and case managers, too.
“Initially we used to take people right off the street and house them, but it’s too unstable. I have to think of the safety of the community and our residents,” Amalfitano says. “It’s one and the same.”
Generally, his residents have come from Salvation Army’s homeless shelter program at the Northport VA where they’ve been treated initially.
He says that if he can’t appease the neighbors, he’ll discontinue a particular location. “One was in Jamaica. I thought I was going to get lynched,” he says with a shrug. “I was working with the church. But the community didn’t want us there. I had the same response in Rockaway Park. I saw school teachers jump up tables, screaming to get us out of their community. A year later, the same people were asking us to open another house. We proved ourselves. What had made us stay in there was one neighbor who had gotten up at the first meeting and said, ‘Listen, I’ve been living in this neighborhood for a number of years, and that house next to me was a crack house. These people came in, cleaned it up, and now it’s a safe, clean residence.’ As far as they knew, the rumor was we had a bunch of drug addicts and alcoholics and people who are crazy, and they all wanted them out of there.”