Editorial: A matter of priorities

02/27/2014 8:00 AM |
BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Melissa Barrington, 31, of Riverhead broke down into tears as she told her story of becoming homeless in 2012.

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Melissa Barrington, 33, of Riverhead broke down into tears as she told her story of becoming homeless in 2012.

Some of the area’s most vulnerable people have been hit harder this winter than any in recent memory — and much harder than the average citizen. While most of us grapple with icy roads, higher-than-average heating bills and the overall nuisance of having to bear nearly five feet of snow, an undetermined number of homeless people wander local streets daily.

It’s nothing new, necessarily, seeing these individuals in Riverhead. But on frigid nights, when basically anyone who can be is inside — and keeping warm — those who aren’t become all the more visible.

More men and women than ever will likely seek refuge this season, with one local nonprofit whose mission for a dozen years has been to take those people in from the cold and “provide shelter, support and compassionate services to homeless adults on the East End of Long Island.”

Yet, no clear plans — or, it seems, even much of a desire — have emerged at the town level to help the area’s homeless. In fact, some local leaders recently passed the buck to other levels of government or to non-governmental organizations, such as churches and homeless programs, when speaking about solving the problem.

Homelessness is an issue with multiple levels of concern, and a wide range of expertise is needed to tackle it. This newspaper expects no panacea to emerge and, of course, there are always those in the homeless population who prefer to live off the grid.

Eliminating homelessness altogether is asking too much. But the situation can be improved if people or government agencies are willing to make the effort

High-paying jobs at EPCAL, downtown ribbon-cuttings, dog parks and baseball fields are all wonderful things and worthy of the town’s time, attention and work. But so is helping people who often cannot help themselves, or those who might have made one bad choice they wish they could take back.

Yes, responsibility for the homeless in Riverhead falls legally on Suffolk County. And the town’s hands are tied to a certain extent, partly for lack of mechanisms enabling it to act, which are available at other levels of government.

All we’re asking for is some creative effort — perhaps adding a homeless committee to the town’s 22 other committees — some attempt by local leaders not only to acknowledge the problem but to step up and recognize that the homeless are a part of Riverhead. That’s a problem worth trying to fix.