Mission serves Riverhead’s needy each Friday; but complaints have followed

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | The Lighthouse Mission group hands out food and clothes for an hour every Friday downtown.

Every Friday at noon, more than 100 people line up outside a box truck behind the old Swezey’s building in downtown Riverhead.

There they receive free food or clothes. And perhaps they’ll listen to a short sermon.

A Bellport-based Christian group called Lighthouse Mission has been bringing what they call a “mobile food pantry” to the riverfront since November, said Pastor Enrique Carbajal, an outreach coordinator for the group.

“We feed the poor and we preach about the Lord,” he said Friday. “That’s what we do.”

Lighthouse now has nine locations in Suffolk County where it brings its mobile food pantry one day a week for one hour, but they’ve only been in Riverhead since November. The other sites are in Coram, Ronkonkoma, Islip, Wyandanch, Bellport, Shirley, Port Jefferson and Patchogue, Pastor Enrique said.

The number of people coming to Lighthouse’s once-a-week pantries on Long Island has increased by 37 percent over the past year, the pastor said.

“People are struggling,” he said. “We get all kinds of people. Even people who have a nice car or a nice house are struggling and living check by check and week by week. We will help anyone. If someone comes here in a BMW, we will give him food. If someone comes on a bicycle, we will give him food. We don’t ask.”

“The economy is getting very bad and things are getting very tight,” said Gale Jones of Riverhead, who received food Friday. “This helps a lot.”

Ms. Jones said she’s lived in Riverhead her whole life and works as a custodian.

“It’s not enough to have a job,” she said. “ Working one job out here on the island is not enough.”

Before giving out the food, a Lighthouse representative will say a short prayer in both English and Spanish, as many of the people on line are Spanish-speaking. Pastor Enrique said they pray for the people and they also are available to help them get any other assistance they might need.

Why did Lighthouse pick Riverhead?

“We try to go to areas where there is more need and we try to pick parking lots like this one, to be fully accessible and so everyone will see us,” Pastor Enrique said.

When the Riverhead program started in November, only about 57 people showed up, but word spread quickly, Pastor Enrique said. “We’ve had as many as 260 people,” he said. “Today, we’ll have about 150 people.”

But because the demand is growing so quickly, town officials are in the process of finding a better location for the needy to gather each week.

“They are doing very good work for the community but I think they’ve gotten a lot bigger than we’d like,” said Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter. He said in an interview that the town hasn’t talked to Lighthouse yet about finding an alternate location but plans to, because some of the downtown business owners have complained.

“Anytime you have 200 men standing in one area waiting for something, whatever it might be, people may be frightened,” Mr. Walter said. “So I’m going to ask them to relocate.”

He said he hasn’t come up with an alternate location yet but has several he plans to suggest.

Pastor Enrique said the group had originally been setting up on the west end of the Peconic River parking lot, where there are more open stores, but moved behind the Swezey’s building, which is surrounded by empty stores, following complaints from business owners on the west end.

“We do this for just one hour on Fridays, from 12 to 1,” Pastor Enrique said. “Everything is empty. I don’t know who we are bothering. No one uses the empty Swezey’s building. It has been empty for six or seven years.

“We want to be a blessing to the community. We don’t want to be a burden. When we pack up and leave, we try to leave it as clean as it was.”

He said Lighthouse is even willing to paint over the graffiti on buildings downtown if the town wants.

“We can do that,” he said. “We have a lot of volunteers.”

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