This essay was first published in Newsday. The Hamptons and the homeless - two things that don't seem to go together.
And, indeed, the presence of a homeless shelter in Hampton Bays, in the former Hidden Cove Motel, has been under attack almost from the time it opened in October 2011.
But this 28-unit shelter has by many accounts been a good neighbor. It is turning people's lives around. And it seems fair that even this playground for the wealthy should hold up a corner of the social safety net.
With the retirement last week of Gregory Blass, Suffolk County's social services commissioner, Hidden Cove lost a tireless champion. The Town of Southampton has been dragging its feet over simple repair permits, Blass said in an interview, and then claims that the shelter violates zoning codes. "It's like clipping the wings of a bird and scoffing at its inability to fly," he said. The town's supervisor, Anna Throne-Holst, was unavailable for comment. A local organizer, Michael Dunn, has put together the Concerned Citizens of Hampton Bays to fight the shelter, according to online reports. Dunn did not respond to efforts to reach him.
Hidden Cove is one of 54 homeless shelters in Suffolk County. Its residents are often single mothers - often fleeing domestic violence - with children younger than 5. They typically stay four or five months before moving into permanent housing.
Daphne, a real estate agent who didn't want her last name used, lived at Hidden Cove this fall with her daughter for 63 days - she counted the days until she could return to a more secure life. The pair moved to Long Island from Florida in June 2011 and were living with Daphne's husband in his aunt's house. He abandoned Daphne, and his aunt said she had to leave.
With no family nearby, Daphne, 47, turned to her pastor, and he referred her to Suffolk County. Her daughter is now enrolled in high school as a senior and plans to graduate this spring.
"The workers at Hidden Cove kept encouraging me and my daughter," Daphne said. "They helped us in every way that they could." She wants to return the generosity, and is looking for a business partner to launch a service helping homeless people find permanent homes.
Another former Hidden Cove resident, Tanya Haynes, lost her job when her child-care provider couldn't care for her son, now 5. The boy has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Haynes said, and the child-care center kept calling her to come and get him. Because of the continuing absences, Haynes lost her job as a supervisor at Starbucks; then, she couldn't pay her rent.
The caseworkers at Hidden Cove helped Haynes find medical care for her son, and counseling for both of them. They are stable now, living in a one-bedroom apartment in Patchogue. The boy's father lives outside the country.
Haynes had never accepted public assistance before; she goes to church and doesn't drink or smoke. "I never wanted to be on social service. It's shameful," she says. "I want to give my son a better life than I had."
The Hampton Bays school district says it can handle "the ebb and flow of enrollment" that students from Hidden Cove represent, without extra cost. Police calls have reportedly fallen since the days when Hidden Cove was a motel. So, what's the objection to this center of charity? "Some people don't like to see black people pushing baby carriages on the street," says Mary Castro, a neighbor who supports the shelter. I hope the opposition to this good place is not truly that petty.