Winter in the Hamptons: food pantries, poverty and homelessness

The seaside towns at the east end of Long Island, New York, are playgrounds for the rich in summer, but off-season life for permanent residents can be a struggle

Maria is sitting on a black plastic chair in a community centre on a cold Tuesday afternoon waiting for her number to be called. She is number 34.

When its her turn, Maria is called forward to pick up a brown paper bag filled with essentials including pasta, eggs and cornflakes and is invited to choose between butternut squash or carrots as the coming week vegetables.

Maria, who declined to provide her surname, is the 34 th client in so far today at East Hampton Food Pantry, their home communities initiative put up simply streets away from some of the most expensive and exclusive real estate in the world.

By the end of the day, the food pantry organisers expect more than 400 families to have followed Maria through the doors of 219 Accabonac Road to collect their weekly food parcel to help them get through the cold, dark Long Island winter.

In the summertime the Hamptons, a collect of historical oceanfront towns and villages 100 miles from Manhattan, is a billionaires playground. But come Labor Day in early September when the likes of Sean P Diddy Combs, Jerry Seinfeldand Martha Stewart shut up their mansions and head back to Manhattan or Beverly Hills, the glitz devotes way to the gritty reality of life for the mostly immigrant community who live out east all year.

The Mercedes-Benz Polo Challenge in Bridgehampton, New York. The Hamptons summertime season starts at the end of May. Photograph: Spencer Platt/ Getty Images

The people who come here are rich and famous, but we who live here are not, tells Maria, who works 14 -hour days in the summer cleaning mansions but goes months without any work at all in the winter.

Maria, whos wearing a pink hoodie and jeans, laughs when asked if she has enough money. There is no work in the winter, only in the summertime, tells Maria, who like many of construction workers in the Hamptons is from Latin America and prefers to speak in Spanish as she still struggles with her English despite living in East Hampton for more than eight years. Here lots of people live in a single room because they cant pay the rent.

She says some families with up to five children are crammed into cellars, and still pay north of $1,000 a month in rent. People come here go looking for work, but in the winter there is nothing.

Lots of her friends cant pay heating or medication and many would go hungry if it were not for the East Hampton Food Pantry, she tells, which is just one of several food banks in the town and the neighbouring wealthy enclaves including Southampton, Hampton Bays and Sag Harbour.

Vicki Littman, chairperson of the East Hampton Food Pantry, which provided more than 31,000 food parcels last year, says the number of people trying out the food pantry is ever increasing.

Once Labor Day comes and the season is over and people hours start to be cut back our numbers go up to about 400 families a week, she says. When they come to us on Tuesday they get two to three days worth of food, so that really helps them to be able to pay that light bill or pay the phone bill, without us they would struggle that much more.

In the winter several food pantries serve households struggling to earn enough fund to get by. This food pantry in East Hampton feeds 400 families every week. Photograph: Emrys Eller

Littman tells it can be hard for foreigners to realise that there are people struggling to get by in a place known the world over for its excess. When I discuss with the summer community that comes out[ here] about the food pantries theyre always shocked, because there is that glamorous side of the Hamptons where there are galas and the beaches and the mansions that are here.

But what people dont realise is, is that there is that service industry. Its the landscapers, the nannies, the waitress, they are all relying on that summer income to get them through the winter but people dont should be noted that when theyre came to see you vacationing.

There are seniors who have to sometimes pick between whether they are going to pay for their medications or pay their bill or offer food, and that shouldnt be the case.

Littman says the town has lost too many people working key undertakings such as educators, police officer and even doctors and dentists because they cant afford to live in the community and the food pantry committee “ve decided to” do more to ensure people have a better shot at biding set.

People are paying so much money only to live in this community, she tells. They dont want to leave, and we dont want to lose people only because they cant afford to live here.

Eddie Vallone, 22, left, in a Hamptons homeless shelter, said: When winter goes and theres no undertakings it leaves guys like me strung out. Photo: Emrys Eller

Housing is, by far, the biggest expense in the Hamptons. At $147 m, the nations most expensive property is hedge fund director Barry Rosensteins 18 -acre beachfront estate at 67 Further Lane, a stones throw from Maidstone Golf Club, which is considered the most elite, prestigious and difficult to get into of all the Hamptons clubs.

Larry Cantwell, East Hamptons town supervisor and lifelong resident, says Rosensteins $ 147 m manor is an exception, but homes regularly change hands at more than $25 m and the rapid price inflation at the top end has percolated down to even the towns most modest apartments.

Finding your first home is a challenge in an area like this, Cantwell tells from inside his wood-panelled office decorated with pictures of him with a record angling catch and golfing with Bill Clinton. Not just people who you would characterise as poor, working-, middle-class households are also discovering a hard time. If you can find a home to buy anywhere in East Hampton for $500,000 youre very lucky. Homes range up to $25 m or even $50 m or more.

Cantwell says more than half the towns homes are empty for most of the year, which causes the population to dwindle to as little as 10,000 in the winter months compared with 80,000 in August.

Its kind of the tale of two cities, if you will. Theres certainly a lot of wealth here,[ but] almost all of that wealth is in second homes merely being implemented in the summer, tells Cantwell, the son of a angler parent and a house-cleaner mom. But the rest of us live here year round.

There are famous and very wealthy people, but then you have hard-working and poor people struggling to get by. Youve got to remember that this community was founded as a farming and fishing community of people who lived off the land and the water a real working-class community.

A seaside mansion in East Hampton, Long Island, where oceanfront homes can easily sell for more than $50 m. Photo: Alamy

Cantwell tells saving up enough money to buy your first house while working as a farmer or angler would be near-impossible in East Hampton today, and its not just the poor police officers, teachers, young professionals and others all struggle to find a place to live here, and many of them cannot afford to own their own home.

There are about 500 divisions of affordable housing in the town, but demand is so intense and turnover is so low that the waiting list has been closed. Children of year-round residents are given little alternative but to leave and set up home elsewhere. Others shall be divided into homelessness.

Being homeless in the Hamptons entails spending a lot of period on a bus. Various houses of worship have joined together to ensure there is somewhere for the homeless of the East End to spend the night over the winter. Churches up and down the north and south fork of Long Island take on the burden one night at a time, and approximately 50 homeless person are bussed between than for up to two hours a day.

Eddie Vallone, 22, is one of those on the bus every night. People look at the Hamptons as some sort of rich township, and theres no problems going on. But there are a lot of problems here, especially narcotics and when wintertime arrives and theres no jobs it leaves guys like me strung out.

Its hard to really grasp, OK the summer is coming to an objective what am I going to do for the winter, Vallone says at Maureens Haven, a charity that coordinates the homeless shelter programme. I want to work, but theres no work to be done.

Vallone, who works cleaning ponds and doing odd tasks on luxury estates, says that if he saves well and doesnt impulse-buy he can stimulate his summertime earnings stretch out until November. But run doesnt start again until May or the beginning of June.

Maryann Gensler, executive director of Maureens Haven, tells this year she has been inundated with more young people like Vallone than ever before. Since January up to 43% of our guests have been 25 or younger, and of that 50% are under 21. It is a huge problem, we really dont know whats make us, she tells. Trying to get these young people housed is awfully difficult because there arent a lot of options. There is more than a year wait for most.

Im going to have my hands full at the end of the month we are going to be what do we do with these children ?.

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