Editor’s Note: A story published on riverheadnewsreview.com Monday about community members reaching out to help a homeless man who had removed Christmas lights from the “Welcome to Flanders” sign was erroneous.
The man, as it turns out, was not homeless but rather a troubled young man who had left his family’s home.
We strive for accuracy and are disappointed in ourselves when the articles we publish contain factual errors.
In this instance we should not have rushed to judgement to report the man was homeless. We should have held off on reporting the facts until we were confident we had them.
We regret the error and apologize for any inconvenience we might have caused the young man, his family and our readers.
— Grant Parpan, Executive Editor
The homeless young man who Flanders residents rushed to support after he allegedly took Christmas lights from the hamlet sign’s decorations appears not be homeless after all.
Sister Margaret Smyth of the North Fork Spanish Apostolate — which works with the local Hispanic population — said she knows the boy and warned he had run away from home after a fight with his mother.
“He has a home, he has a mother, he has two brothers,” Sister Margaret said. “He has no reason in heaven to ever be homeless.”
Though the residents that brought the boy food and blankets meant well, Sister Margaret said the good will efforts weren’t helping.
“You don’t want to encourage this by having people buying him blankets,” she said. “This kid needs more help than those kinds of things.”
Instead, she suggested those moved by compassion to give to local food banks or homeless shelters, who could properly distribute the blankets and food to those in need.
What appeared at first to be a story of Christmas theft, turned out instead to be one of giving.
It all began Dec. 13 when it was reported to police that someone had removed electrical cords and Christmas lights used to decorate the “Welcome to Flanders” sign at the corner of Flanders Road and County Road 105.
While it was originally assumed to be an act of vandalism, it was later discovered that the cords were being used by a homeless man living in a tent in the woods behind the display.
Instead of banding together to stop the thief, as they originally had, local community activists instead began working together to help out the man in need.
“The tone immediately changed,” said Ron Fisher, president of the Bay View Pines Civic and Taxpayer Association.
“We felt bad,” said Susan Tocci of Flanders. “Now we want to help him.”
The discovery that a homeless man had stolen the lights came after members of the community gathered to redecorate the sign with more than 30 strands of donated Christmas lights. The group noticed a wire coming from the woods that was plugged into a side outlet at the site, Mr. Fisher said.
When he tugged at the wire, it went further and further into the woods, he said. Eventually, the wire connected to makeshift tent about 300 feet away.
A young Hispanic male, about 5-foot, 6-inches tall probably between 17 and 20 years old, took off when he saw the group approaching, Mr. Fisher said.
The man was using the extension cord to power some lights and a space heater he had set up at the makeshift campsite, and he used the Christmas lights as rope to tie together his tent, Mr. Fisher said.
While the group was originally angry that someone would steal their Christmas decorations, that all turned to sympathy and concern once they realized what was happening.
Ms. Tocci and Frank Fisher, Ron’s brother, stopped off at the tent site on Monday and left donations of food and clothing for the man, who wasn’t there at the time. They said they believe the man took off when he saw the group of people approaching.
“He’s probably scared,” Frank Fisher said.
The space heater was gone Monday and the electric cord was taken back by the group on Saturday, but they left the Christmas lights.
Ron Fisher said Monday that the community has now made numerous efforts to help the homeless man.
“We’ve received other offers of fur coats, jobs, warm coats, sleeping bags, a real tent, blankets and food,” Ron Fisher said. “A lot of people have offered donations and we’re not even sure he’s still there.
“There are a lot more people looking to help him now than there are people looking to punish him,” Ron Fisher said.
Photo caption:Susan Tocci and Ron Fisher leave food and clothes for the homeless man they believe was stealing Christmas lights to use as rope to tie together his makeshift shelter. (Credit: Tim Gannon)