Gathered around a long, family-style table, roughly 25 men enjoy a homemade feast while watching “Gilligan’s Island.” The friendly chatter, smiling faces, and sounds from the kitchen almost make you forget it’s a homeless shelter with a 20-year history.
It’s retro-TV dinner night and the smell of crispy tater-tots and fudgy brownies mingle in the air. Volunteers cooked the food, enough to feed all the men.
Cantor Gustavo Gitlin of Congregation Tifereth Israel, and president of the North Shore Sheltering Program Board of Trustees, appears at the door. He’s balancing trays of food to add to the night’s spread. When he greets the men he smiles.
Housed in the First Presbyterian Church of Glen Cove, at 7 North Lane, NSSP provides overnight housing and a warm meal for homeless men during the winter. Staffed by community volunteers and surviving on donations — both monetary and material — the program serves as a sanctuary providing a close-knit community.
“There are a lot of social programs to assist, but it’s hard to follow through with paperwork and bureaucracy,” Gitlin explained. “People fall through the cracks. So, when you see people on the streets, the shelter not only provides a place to sleep, but it’s a community. They become family.”
The shelter’s 20th anniversary, celebrated on March 19 at the Planting Fields Arboretum, was bittersweet. It marked how far the program has come, while remembering the tragedy that started it all.
In 1996, two homeless men, in separate incidents, lost their lives on the streets of Glen Cove due to exposure in winter. Community members and religious organizations banded together to ensure this would never happen again.
“It was so horrific that this could happen in such an affluent part of Long Island, and even the country,” said Colleen Fortuna, assistant to the NSSP board. “People didn’t even realize there was a homeless population here.”
Twenty years later, there has not been one exposure-related homeless death in Glen Cove.
“What you’ve done and what people have been doing is bringing a miracle to people’s lives,” said U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi, who was also the Mayor of Glen Cove when the NSSP began.
The NSSP anniversary event underlined gratitude, especially for the $15,000 check presented by St. John’s of Lattingtown Church. Dedicated volunteers were also thanked as was the Glen Cove community and the countless organizations and schools across the North Shore that makes the daily operations possible.
Gitlin describes the shelter’s atmosphere as “magic.” He lights up while explaining the passion he sees in volunteers of all ages and the appreciation in guests as well. “Kids who get involved and serve will never forget that experience,” said Gitlin. “Helping with kindness, helping people like them.”
Friends Academy of Glen Cove is a large contributor to the functioning of the shelter. The private school collects in-demand supplies ranging from socks to spoons — feeding 25 men a night means a minimum of 175 spoons a week.
Every year the NSSP offers tours to students who have participated in collecting supplies and making donations to help the shelter to continue to run.
Students from Friend’s Academy have toured the shelter. Fortuna said that a 1996 protest that was held in response to the exposure deaths is discussed during the tour. Two coffins and a dog were included in the protest. The children always know what the coffins represented but not the dog. They are always surprised to learn that the dog represented a stray, that if found in winter could be taken to a warm shelter. In 1996 no such place existed in Glen Cove for the homeless men who perished.
NSSP is committed to allowing for opportunities, like allowing for students to tour the shelter, to enable them to see past the stereotypes that surround homelessness.
“When people get involved, what they get is so much more than what they give,” said Steve Fortuna, an NSSP board member. “It puts a face to a problem that is scary. Once there is a human face, it becomes something you can tackle.”
Gitlin believes that when people see through the label of homelessness, they connect to the program’s message on a deeper level — one devoid of labels or stereotypes.
“When you feel the connection, when you have it in your own backyard and see your actions making a difference — being a part of that opens people’s hearts,” said Gitlin. “I am very grateful to have the opportunity to serve and facilitate this magic.”
After 20 years, NSSP is looking to the future, optimistic about its continued success, and determined to provide shelter while the need exists.
As for the men, the shelter will be closing its doors soon as warmer weather approaches. They will say farewell temporarily to the friendly feasts and makeshift beds. Yet, their community will be waiting, ready to gather supplies, sign-up for cooking duty, and open the doors when the cold creeps back in.