St. Andrew’s Center Helps Reservation Residents Apply for Sandy Relief

St. Andrew’s Center Helps Reservation Residents Apply for Sandy Relief

By Solange De Santis

More than three years after Hurricane Sandy, St. Andrew’s Community Center in Mastic Beach helped Native American residents of the Poospatuck Reservation apply for recovery funds to rebuild or acquire housing.

Located at St. Andrews Episcopal Church and supported by Episcopal Ministries of Long Island (EMLI), the center was established as a response to Sandy, which devastated the Caribbean and East Coast of the United States in October 2012.

In Suffolk County alone, more than 13,000 housing units were damaged by Sandy, according to federal reports, including about 108 on the reservation, which occupies part of a peninsula on the Forge River on the southern shore of the county, near Mastic Beach, and is home to about 250 members of the Unkechaug Nation.

“There was major damage from wind, flooding, rain and some damage by falling trees. People were waist-high in water,” recalled Wendy Samuels, who is Unkechaug and the outreach coordinator of the community center.

Since the disaster, the center has coordinated efforts to organize volunteer groups to repair homes, provide meals at the center, distribute groceries and supplies to families and develop a youth mentoring program, noted Mary Beth Welsh, executive director of EMLI.

Two years ago, Samuels became aware that Poospatuck residents could have applied for rebuilding funds under the New York Rising Community Reconstruction Plan, a $650 million program of the state of New York —but the deadline had passed.

Case workers from Catholic Charities and other agencies who were meeting at the center to work on Sandy recovery had asked Samuels why the Unkechaug weren’t applying for New York Rising funds. “I said, ‘because we are a sovereign nation and we don’t pay taxes,’” Samuels said.

The New York Rising application needed certain land ownership documentation, but the Unkechaug tribe owns the land while individual residents have deeds to their homes, Samuels said. The housing doesn’t appear on county tax records.

Deciding that it wouldn’t hurt to try, Samuels went door-to-door on the reservation, explaining the program to people in their living rooms and urging them to come and get more information. “We went in the daytime; we went on the weekends. We made a flyer that told them what the program was about. When we had a caseload of 30 or more, we called in the New York Rising team,” she said.

Part of the process was helping residents overcome skepticism about the program and helping the New York Rising representatives at the Patchogue office understand the tribe’s land ownership situation, she said.

“New York Rising had shut down that program, but they opened it up again when they saw that this population had been overlooked,” Welsh said.

About 60 people came to the community center last August and were guided through the process of filling out the preliminary form and the 36-page main form, Samuels said.

As a result, New York Rising has approved funds for about 30 homes at a cost of $100,000-$130,000 each, Samuels said. Homes on the reservation are a mix of manufactured homes and frame houses.

So far, said Unkechaug Chief Harry Wallace, five homes have been rebuilt. “The project … is now beginning to make some significant inroads into repairing and restoring the damage done to homes here on our territory,” he said.

The St. Andrews Community Center has been key. “We have a great relationship with St. Andrews ... They have opened their doors to us unlike any other,” he said. Facilitating the application process was ‘’all hands-on work. It’s the first time I’ve ever experienced anything like that with respect to a church-sponsored activity,” Wallace said.

Samuels said the successful process has given residents more confidence in St. Andrew’s Community Center. “Now they call me all the time. They utilize the center for more resources,” she said.

View Photos