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CAST, other organizations, face ‘unprecedented’ demand as need on North Fork skyrockets

On a recent Monday morning, a line of people crowded the parking lot behind the former Methodist church in Southold. Workers carried boxes in and out as people waited to enter the food pantry.

The Center for Advocacy, Support and Transformation, which moved its headquarters to the church only last year, has been serving low-income individuals and families in Southold Town since 1965, offering a variety of services that include — besides the food pantry — emergency assistance for urgent needs such as rent and utility, educational programs such as tutoring and computer training, benefits application assistance, as well as advocacy and referrals..

Busy Monday mornings have become routine for the nonprofit, previously known as Community Action Southold Town. Demand for help from local aid groups has skyrocketed on the North Fork as residents suffer the impacts of inflation and rising housing costs. 

Citing dire financial need among community members, CAST executive director Cathy Demeroto requested $100,000 in funding assistance from the Southold Town Board at a budget hearing earlier this month. While it’s not unusual for a group such as CAST to request local aid, the amount requested is much higher than those made in the past. 

As of 2022, CAST is serving more than 900 unique families, or 2,265 individuals, including 864 children and 124 adults over the age of 65. That represents around 10% of Southold Town’s population, Ms. Demeroto said. The unprecedented demand for the group’s services has emerged and grown  since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. 

“To be clear, the number of people we’re serving has not declined since the height of the COVID crisis. Instead, we are experiencing a continuous increase in demand for our essential services,” Ms. Demeroto told the Town Board. “Funding from local government would directly benefit individuals and families in our community who could not live and work in Southold Town without the support of CAST.”

Related Story: Town Board may consider guidelines for supporting struggling aid groups

CAST executive director Cathy Demoroto requested $100,000 in aid at a Town Board meeting earlier this month. (Credit: Brianne Ledda)

Daniel O’Shea, executive director at the aid group Maureen’s Haven, also said there’s been a large increase in the demand for its services since the pandemic that has only continued to climb and, as a result, 2022 has been an “astronomically expensive year.” 

“2022 has been a much more difficult year from the funding side than I anticipated. We’re a small agency with a very small operating budget and very small revenue,” Mr. O’Shea said. “The last two years, we were able to do okay; we were able to take advantage of some COVID relief funds and the generosity of our supporters. This year, it’s the complete opposite. The demand is still there, but a lot of the funding sources have either lessened their amount or dried up. For the next two months, I’m really going to be sweating making my 2022 annual budget.” 

Three years ago, the Maureen’s Haven emergency overnight winter shelter program on the East End offered around 3,400 beds, he said. During the  first year of the pandemic, the number of beds went up to 4,300. Last winter, the program provided 6,400 beds across the East End — nearly doubling capacity. 

“We have seen on the entire East End, both the North Fork and South Fork, especially since the start of the pandemic, a rather large increase in demand for services,” Mr. O’Shea said. “When the pandemic first hit, a lot of services went remote or they were shutting down, so right off the bat there was a pretty big deficit in available services and it’s still taking a number of months, if not years, for a lot of these services to kind of get fully operational again.”

North Fork Parish Outreach, a Catholic organization based in Greenport, saw a 72% increase in the number of individuals seeking help with food in September, said director Maria Fedele. And last year, between September and August, the parish saw nearly 200 first-time clients. 

“I think everybody is being affected by what’s happening in the economy. So while we have such generous people, donations are not what they used to be,” Ms. Fedele said. “We are trying our best to help people … but now it’s getting difficult because we’re trying to help everyone who reaches out to us. There’s absolutely a definite increase in the number of people that need help.”

“We are very concerned as we approach the winter months, with people working fewer hours due to the seasonal nature of our business and agricultural community. At the same time, these families need to put oil in their tanks to heat their homes,” Ms. Demeroto told the Town Board at the budget hearing. “With winter right around the corner and need increasing daily, CAST is out of federal emergency food and shelter program funds for food as well as rent and mortgage assistance and we do not know when the next round of funding will be approved and released.”

The food pantry, which offers fresh produce, is only one of the services that CAST offers clients. Among other programs offered are emergency assistance for urgent needs such as rent and utilities, and educational programs. (Credit: David Benthal/file)

The nonprofit’s expenses will exceed its approved operating budget for 2022, she said, and the group needs assistance from the town. She cited 2020-21 state Education Department data that reported 75% of children in Greenport Union Free School District, 38% in Southold Union Free School District and 30% in Mattituck-Cutchogue Union Free School District are economically disadvantaged. According to the state, economically disadvantaged students are those who participate in, or whose family participates in, economic assistance programs such as free or reduced-price lunch programs or Social Security insurance, among other things.  

The rising need for aid on the East End can be attributed at least partially to an ongoing housing crisis, as landlords sell houses and raise rent, as well as increasingly high living costs due to inflation, according to Mr. O’Shea. 

“There’s no affordable housing anywhere,” he said. “A lot of my folks that use the service, they may be on a very, very fixed income. They may get Social Security or disability, so they have access to some funding, but when you’re getting $1,400 a month as a senior citizen there’s no way you’re affording $2,400 a month for a basement apartment.”

Similarly, Ms. Fedele said that while the economy is playing a big role in increased need, people are struggling to maintain housing on the North Fork, and that’s impacting their ability to pay their other bills.

“Rents are going up and people can’t afford it,” she said. “Sometimes someone will come in and say, ‘Well, I had to pay my rent, and this and that, and now I’m short for my car insurance.’ It’s really difficult for people out here, you know, and I’m sure it’s difficult all over but I feel like here on the North Fork, things have really changed. If you’re an average worker, where do you live?”

Thomas Combs in Orient has turned to CAST for help since he was forced to stop working after being diagnosed with cancer. He has been undergoing chemotherapy for the last few months. 

“I reached out to them to see what they could help me with directly and they were able to pay two months’ rent,” he said. His family has been trying to help and he’s friends with his landlord, who has been working with him, but “she can only do so much; you need your tenants to pay.”

CAST has been “very helpful to me,” Mr. Combs emphasized. “Things have come a long way. I’m just assuming I’m going to beat this because I’ve gotten good numbers in the way of reduced size, so I’m going to hopefully be here and be able to give back.”

Katria Nieves, a single mom of three who lives in Greenport, said CAST has been a “lifeline” through services such as its mobile food pantry and school supply and toy distribution. She has previously worked at the organization as an employee and recently, CAST offered her an emergency assistance grant to help with the cremation of her mother, who passed away in May. 

“I don’t know what I would really do without CAST, to be honest,” she said. “Between inflation and the cost of living altogether, it really takes the edge off to be able to go there.”

CAST’s funding request prompted a heated discussion at a Town Board work session last week. Some members argued the board needs to establish a process to grant funds before considering CAST’s request, while others highlighted the organization’s service to Southold residents and the immediate need, calling the request a “moral imperative.”

Potential solutions floated included reimbursements for 2022 expenses and a roundtable with local aid groups to discuss grant application processes moving forward. 

“It is the responsibility of elected representatives to determine the best use of discretionary funds to meet critical needs in the community. We certainly agree the town should establish appropriate and public guidelines and process for such discretionary spending,” Ms. Demeroto said in an emailed statement after the meeting. 

“CAST is happy to participate in a roundtable to discuss the process (i.e., grant application) moving forward for seeking Town of Southold discretionary funds through the Town’s annual budget and for reporting on the use of funds. CAST also supports including all Southold Town nonprofits serving Southold Town residents and providing essential human services in the grant process to best fill gaps in critical services for Southold Town residents,” she added.

The best way to support Maureen’s Haven is through funding, said Mr. O’Shea. But the shelter is always looking for donations such as clothes, toiletries and nonperishable foods, which are accepted at the group’s day center in Riverhead. Anyone interested in volunteering may apply at maureenshaven.org/ways-to-give/volunteer/

Monetary donations may be mailed to North Fork Parish Outreach at P.O. Box 584, Greenport, NY 11944. Food donations are accepted at the parish food pantry in the St. Agnes School building in Greenport Monday through Thursday  from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

CAST also accepts donations online or via mail at P.O. Box 1566, Southold, NY 11971. More information about how to contribute may be found at castnorthfork.org/donate.

Correction: An original version of this article incorrectly stated that 75% of students overall are economically disadvantaged in Southold Town. That statistic only applies to the Greenport Union Free School District.