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The Nassau-Suffolk Coalition for the Homeless (NSCH) has been working to eliminate homelessness on Long Island and improve the lives of Long Islanders who are homeless or facing homelessness for almost 25 years.

Each year, NSCH hosts the Have a Heart for the Homeless Candlelight Vigil. This year's event will be held on Thursday, Feb. 12 from 6 to 8 p.m. in the Plaza and Multi-Purpose Room in Farmingdale State College's Roosevelt Hall.

According to NSCH Executive Director Greta Guarton, the reason for the vigil is three-fold.

"To raise awareness about the number of Long Islanders who are homeless or at-risk, to collect and distribute necessary items to those in need and to encourage and promote community involvement and volunteerism," she said.

The evening will feature a candlelight ceremony, musical guests, speakers, and a food and goods drive. At the event, NSCH will also be accepting donations of unused baby items, diapers, formula, unopened toiletries, non-perishable foods, clothing and blankets.

Guarton said there are a variety of reasons that people become homeless.

"On Long Island, a common factor tends to be the high cost of living and the lack of affordable housing," she added.

She also said that the current state of the economy is already having a "significant effect on human services agencies."

"Many report a growing number of requests for all kinds of assistance," Guarton added. "We anticipate that the need will continue to grow for the foreseeable future."

According to NSCH, the number of homeless people on Long Island is steadily rising, although statistics vary greatly.

"This is primarily due to the definition of homelessness itself," Guarton explained. "The most narrow definition only includes those who are living in cars or abandoned buildings, literally on the street or in homeless shelters. During a count conducted in 2007, enumerators counted over 2,500 Long Islanders who were in one of those situations. If we were to include those who are doubled or tripled up, sleeping on relatives' sofas, or facing imminent eviction, those numbers would easily be four times higher."

In 2007, a Department of Housing and Urban Development project reported that there were nearly 4,000 homeless people on Long Island. Of that 4,000, there were 1,215 homeless in Nassau, 91 of them outside.

Guarton said NCSH works with both counties Social Services departments "to help homeless Long Islanders access permanent housing and to prevent homelessness whenever possible."

The Nassau County Department of Social Services' Housing and Homeless Prevention program can assist individuals or families that are undomiciled or threatened with the loss of stable housing. They will assist individuals and/or families on an emergency, temporary basis, as well as those threatened with eviction of foreclosure.

Call 227-7525 or visit www.nassaucountyny.gov/agencies/dss/Housing.htm for more information.

NSCH is a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to eliminate homelessness on Long Island and improve the lives of Long Islanders who are homeless or facing homelessness. NSCH was founded in 1985 as an advocacy and information/referral organization to help homeless individuals and families throughout Long Island. Since that time, NSCH's network has grown to include over 125 agencies and organizations serving thousands of Long Islanders who are homeless or at risk for homelessness.

Their assistance has taken several forms, including but not limited to the preparation of proposals, information about HUD and other sources of funding, person-to-person exchanges with Coalition staff and board members resulting in further understanding of HUD guidelines, training seminars on housing development, grant writing, and researching various funding sources, providing linkages between experienced housing and service providers and smaller, less experienced agencies to enable those smaller organizations to improve their programs and networking of organizations to provide a more seamless Continuum of Care in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

Its Housing Advocacy Program offers information, referrals and linkages for homeless individuals and/or families to organizations providing housing and services.

"Our Housing Advocacy and Case Management program provides assistance in accessing benefits, preparing housing applications, locating resources, and creating linkages to needed services," Guarton added. "Our Emergency Cash Assistance program provides funding to prevent or end homelessness."

With a paid membership to NSCH, organizations/members will receive a variety of benefits and services, including access to the Coalition's email network, which reaches over 250 individuals at more than 150 organizations throughout Long Island; access to donated goods (furniture, clothes, toys, etc.) upon availability; and enhanced sponsorship opportunities at the Annual Keys for the Homeless Conference.

Long Islanders can help NSCH fulfill its mission in various ways throughout the year as well.

"Long Islanders can conduct drives to collect necessary items ranging from toiletries to school supplies, or new toys to new baby items and non-perishable food," Guarton added. "They can also help by becoming involved as volunteers, raising awareness and helping us combat stigma."

Nassau-Suffolk Coalition for the Homeless is located at 38 Old Country Road in Garden City. For further information about the event or NSCH, call 742-7770, visit www.nsch.org or contact Greta Guarton at gguarton@nsch.org or Julee King atjking@nsch.org.

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