Interfaith Nutrition Network sees rising need on Long Island

Headquarters of the INN, located on 211 Fulton Ave in Hempstead, New York

 “In spite of the fact that I was working…wearing a suit, and going to work every day, I needed to go to a church food pantry to put food on my plate.” Gerry Laytin lives on the South Shore in Long Island and has a career in voice-overs and radio. He remembers his experience with hunger in 2008 like it was yesterday.

For seven months, Laytin was one of the thousands of Long Islanders who struggle with hunger or homelessness or both.

“It doesn’t take many poor circumstances or series of unfortunate circumstances for people to sort of fall through the crack, and what happens is food and shelter become options instead of the right they deserve to be,” says Dorian Stern, the Director of Development at the Interfaith Nutrition Network.

Better known by its acronym, the INN is a grass-roots organization dedicated to helping hungry and homeless residents on Long Island.

Paying it forward

Laytin says that his battle with hunger was humbling. “I vowed that as soon as I was okay, the fight I would give back [to] would be to hunger and homelessness...”

“I was never a guest at the INN, ” he said, “but the reason I decided to give back to the INN was because I wanted to do something in a much bigger way. I wanted to go someplace where I could donate my time and energy, and serve people.”

Headquarters of the INN, located on 211 Fulton Ave in Hempstead, New York

Headquarters of the INN, located on 211 Fulton Ave in Hempstead, New York
LIR Photo Credit: Justin Damiano

The INN started as one soup kitchen in Hempstead and now features 19 soup kitchens from Long Beach to Patchogue feeding 7,500 people daily. They also provide three emergency shelters, veterans’ housing, and four long-term housing units.

“Where someone could have slept outside last night they could come to our main location and take a shower, they can get clothing, and they can have a hot, five-course meal. When they leave they can get groceries, they can get sandwiches and be on their way. And come back the next day and do the same thing if that’s what they need,” says Cynthia Sucich, director of communications at the INN.

A different kind of shelter

The INN’s many locations and services aren’t what sets it apart from other shelters and food pantries. At the INN, the staff and volunteers work hard to maintain a reputation of integrity. People who go to the INN are referred to as “guests” and are never questioned about their needs.

“Our slogan, if you will, is ‘to serve those in need with respect, dignity, and love,” Stern says.“Frankly, we hear it all the time: for the grace of God, it could be me, it could be someone I know, and I think we’ve really helped alleviate the stigma. Hunger and homelessness really can happen to anyone.”

According to Sucich, the demographic of people utilizing the INN’s services has changed over recent years. “It’s not just what people would picture as the working poor. It’s more of the middle class and a lot more senior citizens that are coming in as well.”

Stern says the weakened economy has increased the number of guests at the INN. Government cutbacks on subsidized programs such as SNAP have made it increasingly difficult for families to put food on the table, and unemployment has increased the number of people who require those programs.

“What’s happened is a lot of people lost their jobs and wound up having to take any employment to take care of their daily bills, and there’s just too much month at the end of the money,” she says.

The INN provides food and shelter to those in need, but Laytin says it hardly feels like being in a shelter at all.“[The shelters are] actually inside regular houses, so people have their own bedrooms, they share a kitchen, they have shared bathrooms for people who occupy the space. It’s shelter, but it’s not like what we think of traditionally as a shelter, in which people have to be fearful for their possessions and sometimes even their lives.”

Building a future

Thanks to the INN, people are able to make it day-to-day. But, the goal is not just to serve the needy and wish them the best—it’s to help people escape the cycle of poverty.

“We have a number of highly trained social workers who really understand the system and they can really help navigate our guests through the system,” Stern says. “For those truly looking to regain a certain level of independence, the social workers work tirelessly to help them get back on track.”

With its diverse services and programs, the INN is an expensive and difficult undertaking that relies on the kindness and generosity of staff, volunteers, and donors. Stern says watching people turn their lives around is one of the most rewarding parts of her job.

“The best happily-ever-after part of what we do every day is when we’ll get a card or a letter from somebody that says, ‘you know ten years ago, five years ago, two years ago, I was coming to the INN and you never judged me, and you never asked my name. You just welcomed me in, and I want you to know that because you gave me the love and sustenance to get through, I have gone back to school, I have gotten a job, I’ve now gotten custody of my children back…those are the stories that motivate us to keep doing what we do.”

For more information on the INN, including where to get help and how to volunteer, visit their website.