A representative from met with concerned residents at the Port Jefferson village board meeting on Monday to talk about the work the organization does and address community concerns about the people who use its services.
Chairman of Hope House, Charlie Russo, an attorney from Belle Terre, addressed the public, sharing startling facts about increasing homelessness on Long Island, dispelling myths about Hope House and facing some public criticism about the program.
Russo, who is also board member of the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless, told the packed room that the plight of Suffolk County’s homeless population is getting worse, with shelters filling up and returning veterans swelling their ranks.
“This is the worst homeless count we’ve had,” he said. “Suffolk is begging us to do more.”
Suffolk County judges and District Attorneys often call the organization pleading with them to “please make room” for more residents.
Homeless shelters on Long Island are in “crisis mode,” according to Russo and the situation is getting worse. Two years ago he said that they had “gotten away from using hotels” to house the homeless but they are now “back up to very high numbers.” Budget cuts and the increasing veteran’s situation are making it hard for the government to do anything more but the problem isn’t going away.
“Everyone wants a solution to the problem but we have none,” Russo said.
Hope House came to the village in 1984 and has various facilities around Port Jefferson that help boys who find themselves without a place to live and nowhere else to go. Russo explained that the organization has a very high placement rate for the clients who come to them and a social work staff deals with kids everyday, trying to find a place for them. He stressed that Hope House does not run a flophouse. The beds at Hope House are full with 45 boys currently living there. An associated program called Pax Christi has 18 residents, sometimes with more on cold winter nights. Suffolk County assigns cases to Pax Christi who then assesses the boys and finds out their needs.
Russo dispelled an often-told story that founder Father Frank Pizzarelli travels into New York City to give homeless boys the train ticket fare to take the Port Jefferson line to the end so they could come to Hope House, calling it “untrue.”
During the meeting, Marge McCuen asked Russo about a house that Hope House owns on Main Street across from Infant Jesus Church, concerned that it was a “sober house” where people with drug or alcohol problems can stay while recovering from their addiction.
Russo said the two-story home, called “St. Francis House,” is merely an overflow where 10 boys in the Hope House program and a staff member stay only to sleep.
“I assume we are perfectly safe?” asked Barbara Sabatino, owner of on Main Street. She was concerned that some of Hope House's clients were sex offenders.
“We don’t have any sex offenders,” Russo responded.
He made the point that the boys in Hope House are there to become better citizens and that three of the staff members at his law office in Hauppauge are graduates of the program, two of them lawyers.
Village board member Lee Rosner asked Russo what happens to the people who get turned away from the program, saying that it is “troublesome for the community.”
Russo said that the organization’s Social Workers try to find a place for each and every person who comes to them but they do not take people who are drunk or on drugs and will call police if the need arises to take away some who come to their doors.
Mayor Margot Garant told Russo that the village has noticed a significant increase in the homeless population in the past 18 months and that people in the community feel homeless people are drawn to area around Pax Christi because of the services they offer.
Resident Phil Griffith came to the defense of Hope House saying that it has been left to the communities to resolve the problem of homelessness.
“I commend Hope House,” he said. “I publically thank them for the job they’re trying to do.”
Russo said that municipalities have their hands tied and has “given the burden to us.”
“This is the second president to say he will eradicate homelessness,” he said. “The homeless counts are higher than ever.”
While Russo said that Hope House is not going to close its doors anytime soon despite his dream of seeing the problem solved, he did say that even after almost 30 years in the community they can get better at what they do and that it was still a learning process.
The village will be meeting with Hope House representatives again on Jan. 20 to further discuss these issues.
“Make no mistake,” he said. “We can’t go anywhere.”