Rockin’ for the Homeless Summerfest set for Saturday

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Artist Sandi Woessner (center) dances with friends at the third annual Rockin for the Homeless event, which raises money for Maureen's Haven.

A year after some Southold church groups pulled away from Maureen’s Haven, a program that shelters homeless people in winter, the church group that brought the program to the North Fork is struggling to keep going under its new appellation, John’s Place Homeless Outreach.

Mattituck Presbyterian Church has scheduled a “Rockin’ for the Homeless Summerfest” for this Saturday, Sept 17, to raise money toward its $10,000 goal, according to Debbie Boschetti, an assistant to Caren Heacock, who fostered Maureen’s Haven at the church when the program first spread from the South Fork to the North Fork 10 years ago.

Mattituck Presbyterian is one of several North Fork churches — others include St. Agnes R.C. Church in Greenport and Orient Congregational Church — that reorganized under the John’s Place banner in the wake of a controversy involving leadership at Peconic Community Council, the parent organization that created Maureen’s Haven. The controversy surrounded the firing of program director Dennis Yuen and his assistant, Karen Fellows. Both were very popular with the volunteers who, at the time, heaped praise on the pair for their work with the individual shelters.

While new leaders at Peconic Community Council hoped the controversy would die down, some local church groups weren’t happy with new policies they thought hindered their ability to put their money and energy to work locally.

Leaders of several of the new John’s Place groups have been reluctant to talk about the split. But Ms. Boschetti said there were “heavy-handed” efforts by new Peconic Community Council leaders to shut down local discussions and require each participating church to donate at least $1,000 to the council.

“This is the first year on our own,” Ms. Boschetti said. They face costs for screening and then busing in homeless guests, who typically come for one night and receive dinner, hot showers, clean clothes and warm beds. In the morning, the guests are given breakfast and a bag lunch and are bused back to the area where they were picked up the night before.

Under Peconic Community Council’s new leadership, Ms. Boschetti said, for security reasons she had to turn away some of those brought to the church last winter. Past practice had been to screen the homeless to ensure they weren’t high on alcohol or drugs and wouldn’t pose any threat to other guests or shelter staff. But last year, she said, a few people arrived drunk and with knives.

When she refused to admit them, Peconic Community Council screeners were angry, she said.

Peconic Community Council executive director Tracey Lutz tells a different story. She has been with the organization for less than a year and acknowledged there have been “a lot of growing pains within the organization.” But she said the goal today is exactly the same as it has been for the past 10 years: to assure that homeless people have food and a warm place to stay on cold nights.

She denied that the council ever asked individual churches for money and said all that was requested was an accounting of money raised in the name of Maureen’s Haven.

“Sometimes, egos get in the way,” Ms. Lutz said.

She insisted that no screener ever tried to force a church into accepting guests who were inebriated or carrying weapons and said the same screener Mattituck Presbyterian uses in its John’s Place program was the screener for Maureen’s Haven.

The council, which once had 30 participating churches on the East End, now has 17, Ms. Lutz said. She noted that while St. Agnes in Greenport has aligned itself with John’s Place, Maureen’s Haven operates a program at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Greenport.

Whether churches on the North Fork work through Maureen’s Haven or John’s Place, all that’s important is that they meet homeless people’s needs, Ms. Lutz said.

“If we can be of any assistance to them, we’re glad to help,” she said.

Now that Mattituck Presbyterian has joined the small John’s Place network, volunteers are struggling to meet the costs involved in keeping the program thriving from Nov. 1 through April 1, Ms. Boschetti said.

With the downturn in the economy, the church houses an average of 60 guests every Thursday night. Other religious institutions open their doors to the homeless on other nights of the week.

Saturday’s fundraiser at Mattituck Presbyterian will run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and includes music by The Front plus food, ice cream, children’s games, craft vendors and horse-and-buggy rides.

Tickets are $5 and are available at Barth’s Drug Stores in Mattituck and Riverhead or at the church.

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