As winter set in across the North Fork, Dan O’Shea, director of Maureen’s Haven in Riverhead, saw that the group’s homeless outreach program at St. Agnes R.C. Church in Greenport was under severe strain.
For several years, Maureen’s Haven has used the church’s shuttered elementary school from November to April to provide those in need a place to sleep and use bathrooms. In previous years, the shelter was used twice a week during those months.
But his winter, with the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc, Mr. O’Shea saw the need to expand the number of nights the facility would be available.
“We were suddenly doing four and sometimes five nights a week at St. Agnes,” he said. “This put a lot of pressure on the facility itself, with the bathrooms in the old school not in the best shape to handle the number of people we were seeing each night.”
When Mr. O’Shea spoke with parish’s administrator Father Piotr Narkiewicz, the priest agreed: They needed help. He said he saw helping those in need as part of the parish’s core mission.
“We are here to serve; that is what we do,” said Father Narkiewicz.
In need of funds to do the necessary work, Mr. O’Shea reached out to Denis Noncarrow, Southold Town’s government liaison representative. Soon a solution was found.
“I could see the plumbing in the school was awful,” Mr. Noncarrow said. “The school was closed many years ago and everything was very much out of date and not functioning well. They needed everything upgraded, including showers, to accommodate the need.”
Mr. Noncarrow said he reached out to someone who had helped in similar situations in the past and this benefactor pledged $60,000 to upgrade two bathrooms with modern plumbing and showers.
“We went back to this individual, and he agreed to help out,” he said. “But he wishes to remain anonymous.”
Maureen’s Haven provides a range of services to those in need, including offering shelter for the homeless during the winter months. While the locations often change, the group maintains approximately 14 sites, mostly in houses of worship, from November to the end of April.
Volunteers drive those who need assistance to locations that have space available on any given night, on both North and South forks. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the shelters had to limit the number who could sleep over during those months.
The former St. Agnes elementary school has a large auditorium that, prior to COVID, could handle 30 people or more; with pandemic restrictions, that number fell to about two dozen. The demand for more nights in operation increased sharply, however, during the pandemic.
“When we saw what was happening, we realized the bathrooms were not up to the demand,” Mr. O’Shea said as he gave a tour of the facility.
On the day of the walk-through tour, crews working for Shelter Island contractor Dan Bartilucci were laying new tile in the school’s two bathrooms, upgrading shower stalls and all but replacing old plumbing under the building that connects to the village’s sewage treatment system.
“The plumbing was absolutely shot,” Mr. Bartilucci said. “We are very glad to be doing this work. I chipped in to help with the tile costs.”
Father Narkiewicz came to Long Island from Poland in 2013. He first went to St. Isidore R.C. Church in Riverhead and was assigned to St. Agnes last year. As he watched the crews working on the bathrooms, he pointed out that the former school has a fully functioning kitchen that is also used for various programs.
Seated in his rectory office, Father Narkiewicz said, “This is a beautiful project. The school no longer exists, but the building is there. During winters here in Greenport there is a need to help people and this building is there to be a part of the solution.
“We cannot let people be outside during those months,” he added. “This is what we are here to do. We don’t judge people. We help where we can.”
“If you sit in judgment on people, nothing will ever get done,” Mr. O’Shea said.
“We don’t judge them and we don’t reject them,” Father Narkiewicz added. “We are here for them.”