By Dustin Brown
The conversion of a motel near LaGuardia Airport into a homeless shelter has sparked a cry of outrage from Borough President Helen Marshall, who blasted the city for failing to contact the community until just before the center’s opening.
But the city Department of Homeless Services said the rapid action came in response to an unprecedented rise in the number of homeless families seeking emergency housing.
The Skyway Motel at 102-10 Ditmars Blvd. in East Elmhurst was transformed last week into the LaGuardia Family Center, a 49-room homeless shelter providing housing and social services to help get families back on their feet.
But Marshall’s office was only informed about the conversion early last week, merely a day before the first families moved in on Aug. 20.
“We’re not opposed to sheltering the homeless,” said Dan Andrews, the borough president’s spokesman. “We don’t believe, however, that this is the way to go in terms of not reaching out to the community.”
The motel sits across the street from the Marriott LaGuardia and next door to the Crowne Plaza LaGuardia, hotels that cater to a largely business clientele. Officials at both hotels have expressed concern that a homeless shelter across the street could drive down business.
The shelter is operated by Family Center Associates, which operates 12 such facilities around the city, including five Queens locations in East Elmhurst, Jamaica and near JFK Airport. This is the second hotel in Queens to become a shelter for homeless families this year despite community outcry. In May, the former Best Western Carlton House hotel near Kennedy Airport opened as a shelter after declaring bankruptcy.
Family Center Associates negotiated a lease with the owners of Skyway in response to the city’s request that all of its shelter providers find more accommodations to house a burgeoning homeless population.
But the deal was only reached Friday, Aug. 16, with the city agreeing to send clients there after touring the facility the following Monday. Although Homeless Services Commissioner Linda Gibbs called Marshall immediately after seeing the site, that only gave about a day’s notice before families began arriving.
“The city is working aggressively to respond to record numbers of families and we’re having to do that work quickly,” said Jim Anderson, the spokesman for the city Department of Homeless Services. “We are making every possible effort to give community notice and we will work diligently to ensure that community concerns are heard and addressed on an ongoing basis moving forward.”
The city’s shelter services system is currently assisting 8,500 families, the largest number since the city began tracking such statistics two decades ago, Anderson said. The number of applications received at the Emergency Assistance Unit in the Bronx, where homeless families first register, are 25 percent higher than the same time last year.
Although the city is required by law to provide housing for any family that seeks assistance, many people have been forced to stay overnight at the intake office in the Bronx because the city has not had anyplace to house them.
The city is paying $93 a night to house each family at the LaGuardia center, said Joe Fitzpatrick, a spokesman for Family Center Associates.
The center is in the process of adding numerous amenities to the site, like kitchenettes in each room and a fenced-in playground behind the building. The company provides security guards to prevent residents from loitering outside the building.
Numerous social services are also available to families who stay there, like an educational program designed to help parents earn their GED and visiting nurses who are called when residents are sick.
“If you’re just going to let them have a room and then nothing, they’re never going to get off public assistance,” Fitzpatrick said. “We’d like to put in services that will help them break the poverty cycle.”
Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.