Raucous Protesters Denounce Homeless Shelter In Elmhurst
Tempers flared among hundreds of people both inside and outside the Queensboro Elks Lodge in Elmhurst on Monday, June 30, participating in rival protests prior to and during a Queens Community Board 4 public hearing on the housing of homeless families at the former Pan American Hotel.
At the hearing inside, residents directed their anger toward Douglas Apple, executive vice president of Samaritan Village, and Lisa Black and Lorraine Stevens from the Department of Homeless Services (DHS). At another table sat Board 4 members and public officials, including District Manager Christian Cassagnol and Chairperson Lou Walker.
To open the hearing, Walker read a Board 4 statement and said “the shelter was placed at the hotel without input,” from the board or residents, to applause and shouts from the crowd.
City Council Member Daniel Dromm, Assemblyman Francisco Moya, State Sen. Toby-Ann Stavisky and Kathy Moore from Borough President Melinda Katz’ office also attended.
While the hearing was going on, outside on Goldsmith Street, which police closed to traffic, a rival protest of people sympathetic to the families at the hotel and some living there began to gather.
Things took an ugly turn, eventually, as the much larger group against the shelter shouted “get a job, we don’t want you here” and “shame on you,” at the shelter sympathizers. Some of them began shouted “go back to your country,” at shelter opponents who were of primarily Asian descent.
Apple appealed to the angry group inside and said he realizes families were moved in abruptly, and without input.
“I recognize what has happened here, we moved in without notice,” Apple said. “We are not here to add problems.”
The approximately 90 families housed at the hotel, he said, “are individuals who, through no fault of their own, became homeless.”
He claimed the hotel was equipped to “provide high quality social services with case managers that will help find housing and employment, if necessary.”
Apple also tried to squelch fears over security and said there is 24/7 security on-site, adding “we have cameras inside the building.”
Among those who spoke during the hearing’s public forum was resident Regina Pratt, who claimed safety was taking a backseat in an effort to house “people that don’t want to work.”
She also took umbrage with Pan American security, claiming to have witnessed shelter residents drinking and using drugs after hours.
“Our crime has already started going up,” she said. “They’re out there at 11 o’clock drinking so the cameras obviously aren’t working.”
Resident Howard Moskowitz asked “I wonder why there is another homeless shelter in my neighborhood.”
“We are already overburdened. We will not be bulldozed into complacency,” he said.
Robert Valdes-Clausell, a member of the Newtown Civic Association, said “my first question is where is the owner of the Pan- Am? I don’t see him here.”
He plans to file a request under the Freedom Of Information Law to investigate the process that ended with homeless housed at the hotel, and implied that a shady backroom deal between the city and the owner was likely.
He stated the building was sold recently and, for the amount paid, operating a hotel was not financially realistic for the rates that would be charged.
“There’s a $16 million mortgage on that property. No one would have done that unless profit was coming,” he said.
Apple further attempted to tamper the controversy by vowing to work with the community from this point forward.
“We will have a community advisory board and a hotline will be accessible and available to you. That is our commitment, so we can have a civil and open dialogue.”
Stevens, DHS first commissioner, spoke on the challenges the city faces housing homeless.
There are 54,000 people currently in shelters, “this is a city-wide crisis and 23,000 are children,” she said. “In NYC we have a right to shelter.”
Bill Kregler, a member of Community Education Council District 24 addressed the strain he believes more families will put on already overcrowded local schools.
“CEC 24 is the most heavily populated school district in the city. There are no seats for these 90 families,” he said.
Kregler addressed previous statements made by Black at a May public hearing in Middle Village on the proposed Glendale homeless shelter. At the time, she claimed the Pan Am was unsuitable for use as a homeless shelter.
“You were misled. You were lied to by public officials. The big picture is people lied,” Kregler told the crowd.
Further, he believes Samaritan Village and DHS should be investigated and believes “subpoenas (should) be issued,” and “sworn testimony for an investigation,” is necessary to hold people responsible.
John Schaeffer, a member of the Communities Of Maspeth and Elmhurst Together (COMET) civic association, believes reports of homeless shelters on Queens Boulevard in the center of the borough is bad for local businesss and could frighten tourists away.
“My first question to the mayor is what is going on with our tourist trade here in central Queens. We’re actually losing income for the city by closing down the hotel,” he said.
“The Pan Am hotel is the only major hotel here. When they come to Queens, they spend money at our businesses. [This decision brings] a bad reputation to the hotel business in central Queens,” he added.