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Bethany House of Nassau County

It takes a community.

As Executive Director Doug O’Dell explains, “What I love most about Bethany House is that it is a place where the people of Nassau County come together to support their neighbors in need…the people who work here are committed, and the people in our community are just amazing.” Stop & Shop has supported this nonprofit organization through the its Community Bag Program.

Tell us about Bethany House of Nassau County.

Bethany House has been around for about 40 years, and our mission is to provide emergency shelter to women, and women with children, who live on Long Island. But we work primarily with those who come from Nassau County.

Bethany House started when a family lost their home due to a tragic fire in a local community on the south end of Nassau County. A local group of Dominican Sisters approached the fire department and asked how they could be of help. They learned that this family had no place to go, so they took that family in, and that was the start of Bethany House.

The Dominican Sisters saw that it was a good fit for their mission to provide services to people who were homeless, and they decided to embark on the journey of providing shelter for homeless women and their children. They purchased a home in Roosevelt, New York, and opened up a shelter for about a dozen women and their children, known as Bethany One. Bethany House continues to provide services at that location.

The need in Nassau County for services for homeless women and children continued to grow, and Bethany House responded to that need. A board of directors was developed, staff was hired and Bethany House expanded from one emergency shelter to a second that became known as Bethany Too, also in Roosevelt. And then, they opened up a third shelter in Baldwin, known as Bethany South. All three of those homes are in operation today.

Bethany House works in partnership with the New York State Office for Temporary Disability Assistance and the Nassau County Department of Social Services. But our main objective is to provide a warm and welcoming home to those in an emergency situation.

We provide food, clothing and shelter in a warm and welcoming environment and one in which women who have experienced various kinds of trauma can begin to heal. We help them to stabilize their children and their family.

One of the things that we’ve noticed as we’ve served people over the last 40 years is that sometimes it’s not their first time experiencing homelessness. And so, we began tracking the people who are coming into our program and talking to them about their experiences.

We learned that the average person coming to us for emergency shelter had experienced homelessness three times before. And often, it has been an intergenerational problem, meaning they first experienced homelessness as a child with their parents. Then when they became parents, they experienced it again and yet again.

We started to think a lot about identifying the underlying causes that drove them into homelessness. So obviously, income is a significant factor. Plus, Nassau County is a tough place in terms of housing. And we started to look at what we could do to ensure that people had a sustainable income when they left us.

Yes, we can help them to find housing, but if they don’t have the ability to stay in that housing, then we’re going to see them again. And as much as we love our guests (which is how we refer to our clients) and care about them, we would not like to see them again in our emergency shelter. We want to see them move on to a sustainable lifestyle, one in which they find security and acceptance and a welcoming community in a setting where their children can prosper. These women aren’t necessarily from abusive relationships; it’s just that they find themselves homeless, and there’s no one reason. But probably the most common issue outside of income instability is that they have experienced trauma in their childhood and adult life. So, we’ve done a lot of work, in the last several years, to help them address those issues.

We want to see them move on to a sustainable lifestyle, one in which they find security and acceptance and a welcoming community in a setting where their children can prosper.

What services do you provide?

We’ve created a continuum of care that we call a three-step approach. In this approach, the first thing that we do is provide emergency shelter, which is designed to meet the basic human needs of the women and the children that we serve in a warm, homelike environment in their home county of Nassau. During this first step, if any of our guests are experiencing health issues, we help them to resolve them whether physical, emotional or mental. We want to make sure that kids are enrolled in an appropriate education program, and we want to definitely make sure that everybody is very safe in one of our homes.

Our homes are typical family homes in lovely Nassau County communities where we don’t have a sign hanging outside that says this is a shelter. From the curb, our houses look like any other home in the neighborhood. When a child gets off a school bus, they are not walking into a motel or a large congregate facility. They’re coming into a home that looks like any other home on the block. Our houses fit into their neighborhood in a way that’s comfortable for the people living in the neighborhood but also comfortable for our guests.

We’ve thought carefully about what one sees when entering the front door, which would say this is a warm and welcoming place. When you come in, you’ll walk into an inviting foyer;  you’ll see a living room, you’ll see a dining room where people eat family style, and then you would be taken to a bedroom or two, that you and your family would share depending on the size of your family. Every bedroom is equipped with Wi-Fi and a TV. There’s appropriate furniture, and we provide a Chromebook or laptop so they can communicate socially and with potential employers and kids can do their homework.

During step two, we provide transitional services to all of our guests. We’re giving people the opportunity to enroll in school, whether it’s college or a GED program to get a high school diploma. Most importantly, we have developed partnerships with Nassau County Community College with several employment training programs. Women have the opportunity to participate in a program that will drive them towards career-oriented employment with income that will allow them to sustain their families in the community after they leave us. We provide trauma-based services, in-house and through community partnerships.

Essentially, step two encompasses opportunities for advancement, after we’ve taken care of your basic human needs.

Step three involves moving forward. In Baldwin, NY, we are poised to open a transitional living facility, and we have several supported apartments available in Bellmore. We will provide people with the opportunity to move into our transitional housing free of public support. We have private funds for operating this program in place right now, though we would welcome public support for this initiative. It’s specifically for a woman starting a new job and who needs to save money to get her security deposit, maybe make a small down payment on a reasonable co-op or condominium or save money for a car.

But it’s also there for women who want to continue their education or complete an employment training program, and there’s no time set on that. It’s about setting goals and achieving those goals. For example, we would agree with the participant in that program to house and support her for the next six months or year. During that time, she can take that next step in her education, finish that employment training program, find her feet and a new position and save some money. And then, we would help her move into a supportive housing environment or a totally independent living environment.

We want them to be a success, and we really don’t want to see them ever having to come into a shelter again. So, we have a fourth step that we haven’t formalized yet: stay in touch with them after they leave our programs. One of the things I noticed when I arrived here two years ago, was that we were getting calls from people six, seven or eight months after they left us, where everything had fallen apart. They lost their job; they couldn’t pay their rent. So, we are now providing aftercare services to the people who have been with us to make sure they stay stable in the community.

Tell us a story that illustrates the good work you are doing.

We had a young woman with two children, eight and nine years old, experiencing repeated homelessness, but she has great learning potential. We helped her to enroll in a college program. And then we supported her. We made sure that she had a computer, the right financial aid, extra money for books, and we supported her while she was going to school. At the same time, we also ensured that her kids were getting an appropriate education.

But there’s only a limited time that you can stay in an emergency shelter. While she was with us, we knew she needed to move out of the shelter, so we helped her locate and secure an apartment, a part-time job and the right support from the county to maintain her family while she finished her education. She’s gotten through two years of college and is working on her third year, and she’s living out in the community.

What is your greatest achievement or contribution to the community?

What I really love about Bethany House and working here in Nassau County with the Nassau County Department of Social Services and our many community supporters is that we help people stabilize in Nassau County. I ran shelters for many years in New York City, and if the shelter was in The Bronx, for example, the only apartment available might be in Staten Island or Brooklyn. So, the clients would need to be uprooted, and their kids were uprooted from their community and schools.

When somebody leaves our shelter, they find an apartment locally, and often their kids don’t even change schools. They stay in the same daycare center. They attend the same church or mosque. All of this leads to family stability.

What I love most about Bethany House is that it is a place where the people of Nassau County come together to support their neighbors in need. In these times when people find so much to disagree about, Bethany House becomes a place where people from all political persuasions, different backgrounds and different economic levels come together to circle around the families we serve. Here, people seem to find their better selves, and we are so pleased to be able to provide that opportunity.

Yes, we help people meet their basic human needs, but we’re so much more than that. We want people to become everything that they have the potential to be.

We want people to become everything that they have the potential to be.

How will you use the funds raised from the Stop and Shop Community Bag Program?

When we receive donations, we try to use them as much as possible to support our guests directly. For example, donations are used to buy school supplies, school uniforms, or Uber and Lyft cards so people can get to their appointments. Donated funds are used for transportation, clothing or personal items. I want to assure people that their donation has helped people directly.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

We find it really important to create situations where families can reunify. A woman may come to us after she has been separated from her children. We do everything in our power to help her regain custody of her children and move them into one of our family shelters. We’re all about family reunification and permanence, meaning they stay together permanently, that they’re in a permanent, stable residence and that they become a productive member of our county.

Our success is tied to the people who live in Nassau County. As I said, we have extraordinary support from businesses, government, and most importantly individuals. Last year, a couple walked in here during the holiday season with about 40 bags full of new clothes and toys. They said they have been so fortunate that they wanted to extend this to other people. They decided that instead of giving themselves and their family gifts, every year they planned to come and bring gift bags full of things that the women and children here need. The people who work here are committed, and the people in our community are just amazing. That’s what makes Bethany House special.

Doug O’Dell is the Executive Director of Bethany House of Nassau County. He has led the organization since 2020.