April 16, 2024 – Nytimes.com

Ginia Bellafante writes the Big City column for The Times. This winter, she visited two encampments on Long Island’s East End to learn how laborers living outdoors survive the cold months.

In early January, I got a call from someone I know who spends time in Sagaponack on the East End of Long Island. She told me about men, most of them undocumented immigrants from Guatemala and Mexico, who live in encampments in the woods, in the shadows of all the money and the opulent comforts of the Hamptons.

The men are day laborers during the high season, making a living landscaping, cleaning pools and maintaining tennis courts. But when it gets cold, when work runs dry, they can no longer afford to rent rooms in houses or sofas in apartments. So they build encampments on small patches of secluded, unoccupied land, a way of life that has emerged over the years in the area. The men cook food over open fires or on propane cooktops and sleep on mattresses on the ground, under makeshift tents. During the winter, about 100 men live in such conditions, and most send money to their families back home.

It presented a grim paradox: marginalized people living outdoors amid an inventory of large, mostly empty summer homes.

Since I began writing The New York Times’s Big City column more than a decade ago, I’ve been interested in how growing income disparities play out in the moments and places where the rich and poor find themselves in proximate coexistence. In the Hamptons, the contrasts are so extreme they seem operatic.

Gaining entry to communities that have vested interests in remaining off the grid can be very hard, but I was lucky to connect with a woman named Marit Molin. Ms. Molin is a trained clinical social worker who moved to the East End from Manhattan with her family several years ago.

She began her volunteer efforts working with the Native American population at the Shinnecock reservation in Southampton. Then in 2020, she started a charitable organization called Hamptons Community Outreach. Once she learned about the encampments, she put together an outreach team to bring food to the men, take them to doctors and dentists and generally try to attend to their well-being.

The men trust Ms. Molin — some of them even call her Mom, even though she looks younger than most of them. When she asked if she could bring me into the encampments so that I could describe their conditions and share their experiences with Times readers, they agreed. All but one allowed me to use their names, despite their immigration status.

Marit Molin, wearing a black jacket, hands a pair of boots to a man whose hands are visible.
Marit Molin hands out new shoes to men gathered outside of a 7-Eleven in Southampton, N.Y. Credit…Anna Watts for The New York Times

I was with Ms. Molin one frigid day in January when she was delivering a supply of parkas and work boots to men who had congregated at the 7-Eleven in Southampton. She pulled out box after box from the back of her S.U.V., making sure everyone had the sizes they needed. The men were in awe that someone had their backs in this way.

Two in particular were grieving the recent loss of a friend, Julio Florencio Teo Gomez, who had been crossing a commercial stretch of road in Southampton on Dec. 30 when he was struck by a car and killed. They were emotional. I do not speak Spanish, but the photographer I was with, Anna Watts, was fluent — she had even lived in Guatemala for a period of time, documenting rural life there for a project. She was familiar with the small towns the men had come from. This connection, it was clear, helped the men feel more comfortable opening up.

It took some time for Mr. Teo Gomez’s closest friend to talk to me. He eventually agreed to a video meeting, with Ms. Molin at his side, but requested that I not use his name. I asked Manuel Sosa, my neighbor, friend and a Venezuelan composer, to serve as the interpreter. I could see that it helped put Mr. Teo Gomez’s friend at ease.

His story, as well as the experiences of other men whom I spoke with at length, helped me put together a picture of what life is like for some low-wage workers in several of New York’s most expensive ZIP codes. The arrival of spring is hardly the solution it may seem. Although the weather is warmer now, the problem persists: Encampment populations in the area can double over the summer, when demand for workers, and rent costs, soar.

I grew up on Long Island in the 1970s and ’80s. The first time I saw someone begging for money was when I was 6 or 7, on a visit to Manhattan, in the 59th Street subway station at Lexington Avenue. I carried the shock home with me to a place where seeing someone in such terrible need was so unfamiliar.

Driving back to the city with Anna in January after witnessing what life was like in the encampments, I was left with the same sense of confusion and unease I had felt as a child — and the same incredulous questions.