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Editorial

Why do so many Americans have a general mistrust of government? Look no further than the recent actions of the city’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS) as Exhibit A.

At a May 22 public hearing in Middle Village on a proposed homeless shelter in Glendale, DHS Assistant Commissioner Lisa Black was asked if the agency would consider housing homeless persons at the former Pan American Hotel in Elmhurst. She publicly dismissed the notion, claiming the hotel-which has over 200 rooms-lacked kitchen and bathroom space, thus making it purportedly insufficient to house homeless families.

But on June 6, with little or no warning to anyone in Elmhurst, the DHS began moving homeless persons into the Pan American Hotel-into the very same facility Black denounced just two weeks earlier at the Middle Village hearing, before some 200 witnesses and members of the local press, this newspaper included.

At first, the DHS claimed it was housing homeless persons at the former Pan Am on a temporary basis supposedly until more suitable shelter space could be provided. But alas, that was also a lie. In fact, Samaritan Village-the nonprofit behind the Glendale shelter proposal-submitted a similar plan to the DHS to convert the Pan Am into a transitional housing shelter for over 200 families.

“DHS has reviewed Samaritan Village’s proposal for this site and they have been approved to operate transitional housing and provide an array of social and re-housing services to homeless families as they move to permanency,” Black wrote to Queens Community Board 4 Chairperson Christian Cassagnol in a letter dated June 6.

What changed in two weeks’ time that transformed the Pan American, in the DHS’ eyes, from unsuitable to ideal as a homeless shelter? Was Black merely mistaken at the May 22 hearing or just trying to pull the wool over Queens residents’ eyes?

Don’t get us wrong, this is not about one commissioner at one agency. This is about an agency that refuses to listen to communities where it wants to create homeless shelters, and refuses to acknowledge the myriad problems which come from warehousing large numbers of homeless people in one location.

The DHS constantly points out that the city has over 50,000 homeless persons; they’re right. The DHS constantly points out that the city is mandated under law to provide shelter to homeless persons; they’re right on that point as well, though maybe it’s time to revisit the law’s application. But the manner in which DHS provides shelter couldn’t be more wrong for the city, its residents and its homeless population.

As evidenced by numerous media reports-including The New York Times’ “Invisible Child” exposé-the city’s homeless shelters are notoriously crime-ridden, filthy and dilapidated. There are strict curfew laws preventing families from going out after certain hours or having company.

The DHS seems to want to shame homeless shelter opponents for standing in their way, but rather, the agency should be ashamed of itself for doing nothing to improve on its shelter system. The agency treats homeless people like prisoners for the sake of getting them off the street; this abhorrent policy must end.

In the middle of all this, Mayor Bill de Blasio put forth a housing plan that would transition thousands of homeless persons out of shelters and into public housing in the years ahead. Yet the DHS carries on with its Glendale and Elmhurst shelter dream.

If de Blasio’s plan is genuine, then he should order DHS to stop the Glendale and Elmhurst proposals. What is he waiting for?

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