J.J. Figueroa lives in a tent in the Riverhead woods.
And, despite having lived in Miami and braved fierce weather events, when he heard about Hurricane Sandy's path of destruction, he knew he had to find safety.
"It kind of hit me Sunday -- I couldn't stay out there," he said. "This storm was so big and bad, I had to find shelter."
Figueroa, with over 300 other Riverhead residents, sought refuge at an emergency shelter set up at Riverhead High School. Hurricane Sandy, he said, made him feel "vulnerable and scared. Thank God they took us in."
James, who asked that his last name not be given, is also homeless; when he heard about the hurricane, he said he reached out to Tracey Lutz, executive director of Maureen's Haven, an organization run under the auspices of Peconic Community Council where area churches and volunteers come together each year to provide shelter and food to the homeless on cold winter nights. The 2012 season begins on Thursday, in Mattituck. Lutz said Hurricane Sandy or not, all houses of worship are ready to go.
Lutz, James said, told him to head to Riverhead High School. "It wasn't a catastrophe," he said. "It could have been."
Speaking of his deepest fears when faced with Hurricane Sandy, James turned somber. "I'm homeless. I live in the woods of Riverhead. I thought about trees, falling on me -- and I'm in a tent."
And so, James said, he left his tent and his possessions behind and found shelter at the high school. "I don't want that to be my legacy," he said. "I don't want to be just some homeless person that died in the woods."
The storm over, both James and Figueroa said their tents -- and Figueroa's bicycle -- were still safe. Figueroa said he broke down his tent in advance of the storm.
Figueroa, however, wished the shelter could have stayed open just one more night; he returned to his tent on Tuesday night and said it was "freezing. I hope I can get through tonight. My sleeping bag got wet last night and it's going to be cold."
The first night of Maureen's Haven on Thursday can't come soon enough, Figueroa said. "I've been waiting for months for tomorrow," he said.
Living in the woods for the past four months, Figueroa said his life has been marked by ups and downs. After living in Miami and working with his father, he started his own business and finally bought a truck. When the truck broke down, he was left unable to work.
"That's what put me in this situation," he said. "I'm still trying to find work." Figueroa hopes to work for the Salvation Army this winter as a Santa. "I'll do anything," he said, adding that he still has all of his tools in storage. "All I need is a little room to rent."
His eyes filled with tears, Figueroa said, "I've lost it all before, but this time it hurt because I lost a lot." The greatest pain, he said, was having to give his German Shepherd Beowolf up for adoption because he could no longer care for him. "I never let him leave my side," he said.
Discussing his beloved dog, Figueroa had to stop and dry his tears.
Freddie, another homeless man who sets up a tent in Riverhead, said he was considering staying put for Hurricane Sandy. "Then I heard the wind howling through the trees -- and I went to the high school. The Red Cross was great -- they gave us someplace to go."
His goal, Freddie said, is to get out of the tent and find another place to live. "I don't want to get caught," he said. "I don't want to get in trouble."
Trying to stay hidden in the winter, when the leaves are off the trees, is harder, he said. Freddie, too, said he is waiting anxiously for Thursday night, when he can find shelter at Maureen's Haven.
"Thank God," he said. "It's getting really cold now."