Firings rattle volunteers at shelters

There’s been a change in leadership at the Peconic Community Council, which oversees the Maureen’s Haven program of providing refuge and food for homeless people at religious institutions on the East End.

Program director Denis Yuen is out, as is his assistant, Karen Fellows. Mr. Yuen has been replaced by Jennifer Truscott.

“It’s true that I, as program director, and Karen, as assistant director, have been terminated,” Mr. Yuen said in a telephone interview Tuesday. He said no one outside the board is privy to all the details and declined further comment.

“Our dedication was for the program and not just the homeless it serves but for all the coordinators who work so hard,” Mr. Yuen said. Maureen’s Haven has been operating programs at 30 religious institutions on the East End for several years.

“This is a program you can’t run out of a manual,” Mr. Yuen said.

At a special Aug. 11 meeting in Aquebogue, members of the board told Maureen’s Haven coordinators, who run individual programs at each East End religious institution, that there would be some changes in the program, but no specifics were given then.

Coordinators who attended the August meeting said they were told the reason for the terminations was confidential. One coordinator, who asked not to be identified, heard that board members thought Mr. Yuen hadn’t procured enough grant money to keep the program afloat.

“Peconic Community Council has a history of this kind of behavior,” that coordinator said of the sudden terminations, adding that there was a lot of support for Mr. Yuen and Ms. Fellows at the meeting.

“They are on the ground and they know the people and they know what needs to be done,” the coordinator said, and with respect to Ms. Truscott, the coordinator said the new director has the right educational background but not the experience.

Ms. Truscott wouldn’t discuss the firings.

“Sometimes people get connected to individuals as opposed to the mission of the program,” she said about coordinators who are expressing doubts about the future of Maureen’s Haven.

She expressed confidence in the board members and staff who are taking steps to keep the program functioning. Drivers and screeners who have been serving Maureen’s Haven for years are all onboard, she said. She said she was also working to beef up security at pickup sites and to assure that coordinators and other volunteers are trained to understand mental illness and to diffuse potentially volatile situations.

Several generous contributions she just received Wednesday will help to fund the program and demonstrate the faith people have in the program, Ms. Truscott said. Board members are also being proactive in developing new ideas to raise funds, she said.

Council vice chairwoman Elaine Villano also wouldn’t discuss the terminations, but said Maureen’s Haven programs will go forward with support for local coordinators in training, busing and screening of homeless who want to spend nights in the various shelters.

A stable and well-established organization like the council is equipped to handle personnel changes without hurting its programs. Ms. Villano said.

Training sessions are being set up on both the North and South forks to assist coordinators in ways to deal with drug and alcohol abusers and to help them quell potentially difficult situations that may arise. The council is also reaching out to find interpreters because many of the people coming to Maureen’s Haven this year have been immigrants. She is also encouraging coordinators to reach out to their own communities to try to enlist interpreters.

Caren Heacock, who brought the Maureen’s Haven program to Mattituck Presbyterian Church when it was in its infancy, said Ms. Truscott had hired an assistant to help with fund-raising and program coordination.

Word on the street is that homeless people are worried that the program won’t open in November as scheduled, Ms. Heacock said. She pledged that Mattituck Presbyterian’s program would be up and running and ready to welcome people as of Nov. 1.

Church members have traditionally provided food for dinner, a place to sleep and breakfast the following morning one day a week. They have depended on the Peconic Community Council to transport and screen homeless clients. Anyone found to be high on alcohol or drugs is barred from the Maureen’s Haven shelters, and is referred to an agency that can assist them with their substance abuse problems.

“They are working on that,” Ms. Heacock said of Peconic Community Council’s effort to continue providing transportation and screening this year.

The Tuesday night Maureen’s Haven program at St. Agnes R.C. Church in Greenport has ended its affiliation with Peconic Community Council and is now running a shelter on its own, coordinator Nora Bischoff said. It is open to all denominations. She declined further comment on the PCC personnel transition.

Southold’s First Universalist Church program continues to operate under the PCC banner, opening its doors for dinner, a bed and breakfast for one night on the first Friday of every month. But its program is struggling to continue, according to a notice sent by coordinator Ceil Loucka to church members. In past years, the church had 20 to 25 guests, but this year, with so much unemployment in the wake of the recession, 35 to 75 people have shown up at the church each month.

With a small congregation and uncertainty about the amount of support PCC might render, Ms. Loucka is reaching out to members to assist her in continuing to offer the program.

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