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
By Rupert Neate
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 it’s 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 this week’s vegetables.
Maria, who declined to provide her surname, is the 34th “client” so far today at East Hampton Food Pantry, a community initiative set up just streets away from some of the most expensive and exclusive real estate in the world.
By the end of the day, the food pantry’s 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 collection of historic 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 Seinfeld and Martha Stewart shut up their mansions and head back to Manhattan or Beverly Hills, the glitz gives way to the gritty reality of life for the mostly immigrant community who live out east all year.
“The people who come here are rich and famous, but we who live here are not,” says Maria, who works 14-hour days in the summer cleaning mansions but goes months without any work at all in the winter.
Maria, who’s 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,” says Maria, who like many of the 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 can’t pay the rent.”
She says some families with up to five children are crammed into basements, and still pay north of $1,000 a month in rent. “People come here looking for work, but in the winter there is nothing.”
Lots of her friends can’t pay heating or medication and many would go hungry if it were not for the East Hampton Food Pantry, she says, 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 seeking out the food pantry is ever increasing.
“Once Labor Day comes and the season is over and people’s 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.”
Littman says it can be hard for outsiders to realize 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 they’re 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 don’t realize is, is that there is that service industry. It’s the landscapers, the nannies, the waitresses, they are all relying on that summer income to get them through the winter but people don’t see that when they’re coming out vacationing.
“There are seniors who have to sometimes pick between whether they are going to pay for their medications or pay their bill or provide food, and that shouldn’t be the case.”
Littman says the town has lost too many people working key jobs – such as teachers, police officers and even doctors and dentists – because they can’t afford to live in the community and the food pantry board is determined to do more to ensure people have a better shot at staying put.
“People are paying so much money just to live in this community,” she says. “They don’t want to leave, and we don’t want to lose people just because they can’t afford to live here.”
Housing is, by far, the biggest cost in the Hamptons. At $147m, the nation’s most expensive property is hedge fund manager Barry Rosenstein’s 18-acre beachfront estate at 67 Further Lane, a stone’s 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 Hampton’s town supervisor and lifelong resident, says Rosenstein’s $147m mansion is an exception, but homes regularly change hands at more than $25m and the rapid price inflation at the top end has trickled down to even the town’s most modest apartments.
“Finding your first home is a challenge in an area like this,” Cantwell says from inside his wood-panelled office decorated with pictures of him with a record fishing catch and golfing with Bill Clinton. “Not just people who you would characterise as poor, working-, middle-class families are also finding a hard time. If you can find a home to buy anywhere in East Hampton for $500,000 you’re very lucky. Homes range up to $25m or even $50m or more.”
Cantwell says more than half the town’s 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.
“It’s kind of the tale of two cities, if you will. There’s certainly a lot of wealth here, [but] almost all of that wealth is in second homes only used in the summer,” says Cantwell, the son of a fisherman father and a house-cleaner mother. “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. You’ve 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.”
Cantwell says saving up enough money to buy your first house while working as a farmer or fisherman would be near-impossible in East Hampton today, “and it’s 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 units 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 option but to leave and set up home elsewhere. Others fall into homelessness.
Being homeless in the Hamptons means spending a lot of time 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 roughly 50 homeless people are bused 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 town, and there’s no problems going on. But there are a lot of problems here, especially drugs and when winter comes and there’s no jobs it leaves guys like me strung out.
“It’s hard to really grasp, ‘OK the summer is coming to an end what am I going to do for the winter’,” Vallone says at Maureen’s Haven, a charity that coordinates the homeless shelter programme. “I want to work, but there’s no work to be done.”
Vallone, who works cleaning pools and doing odd jobs on luxury estates, says that if he saves well and doesn’t impulse-buy he can make his summer earnings stretch out until November. “But work doesn’t start again until May or the beginning of June.”
Maryann Gensler, executive director of Maureen’s Haven, says 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 don’t know what’s hit us,” she says. “Trying to get these young people housed is terribly difficult because there aren’t a lot of options. There is more than a year wait for most.
“I’m going to have my hands full at the end of the month we are going to be ‘what do we do with these kids?’.”