For most, the holiday season is a time for sharing special moments with family and friends, gathering before a roaring fire for warm meals and memories. For the homeless; however, the winter months conjure not feelings of anticipation and joy, but instead a grim fear of brutal exposure to the elements and the endless search to find respite from the frigid cold.
Yet, on the East End, Maureen's Haven, an organization comprised of local houses of worship and over 1,500 volunteers, serves as a beacon of hope – offering the homeless shelter, food and the warmth of companionship and laughter.
In Hampton Bays, St. Mary's Episcopal Church on Ponquogue Avenue serves as one of the host sites for Maureens' Haven, with groups of volunteers from other houses of worship volunteering to help cook, serve, and stay overnight with the homeless.
On Friday, the holiday spirit was alive and well at St. Mary's: The room was bedecked for Christmas with candy cane tablecloths and boughs of holly in vases.
A group of volunteers from the Hampton Bays Assembly of God Church gathered to dish up steaming plates of macaroni and cheese, hamburgers, French fries, salad and an array of tempting desserts.
But, the nourishment didn't stop at dinner. There were Christmas carols led by Pastor Eric Rey, Bibles passed out by Gideons, a worship service, activities such as manicures and haircuts and presents . It was food for the soul.
Despite Friday's festive mood, the reality is sobering – the number left homeless in the Hamptons is rising, with approximately 40 guests seeking shelter nightly.
Numbers are expected to spike as the temperature plummets.
"I attribute it to the tough economy," said Maureen's Haven Program Director Tracy Lutz. "There are quite a few guests this year that work full time and still can't afford a place to live."
Take John, who asked that his last name be withheld. When asked how he found himself homeless, John said, "Money."
A mechanic ,who works at an auto repair shop, John said during the summer, he often shares an apartment with a few other men. But then, one finds himself out of work, another can't pay his share – and John is unable to rent solo.
"I can't afford it all by myself," he said.
Maureen's Haven, he said, "gives me a place to stay at night that's nice and warm, seven nights a week."
Moreover, he said, it's a gathering place where he can find companionship with friends. "We're like a family here," he said. "You meet some good people – the volunteers are great."
Another gentleman, who asked to remain anonymous, said, "It's good to see friends again. You do miss them over the summer."
And the bonds go both ways: Volunteers greet their homeless guests warmly and share stories of their lives.
Volunteer Denise Foley, who lost her mother recently, was touched when the homeless expressed sorrow for her loss.
"We get more out of this than they do," she said.
Maureen's Haven, she said, helps "people to get back on their feet and lets them know they're loved. Sometimes we all need a little lift, to know that people care. We all go through seasons in our lives – and after the winter, comes spring."
In today's economy, said Foley, nothing is certain.
"It only takes the scale to tip a little bit. It could be any one of us," she said.
Younger volunteers pitched in, too.
"It's really empowering to see everyone involved. If everyone could do this, we could help so many people," said Stephanie Kozofsky, 19.
Girl Scouts prepared lunches for guests to take with them.
Despite an army of angels, Maureen's Haven still faces tough challenges. With numbers on the rise.
"All of the people in business and government that I have spoken to only see this trend increasing in the new year and perhaps into 2012," said Lutz.
The community can lend a hand, she said, with donations, not just of funds, but of food, gently used coats in larger sizes, rooms to rent for individuals that can pay about $300 a month, volunteers to host additional sites, new sites for overnight stays and office volunteers to assist guests with finding housing and accessing health care. Overnight volunteers are always in demand.
One homeless guest said, "Maureen's Haven offers a safe haven. It's a good program. I just hope it continues."
Maureen's Haven operates under the umbrella of Riverhead's Peconic Community Council. Since 2001, it has worked to meet the growing need of the homeless living in the shadows of one of the toniest vacation destinations in the world. Maureen's Haven's season runs from November 1 through April 1.