By Bill Parry
The anger and fear that has gripped Elmhurst since the city turned the Pan American Hotel into a shelter for homeless families was on full display at a hastily convened town hall meeting Monday evening.
Dozens of residents ripped into government agencies while representatives of the city Department of Homeless Services and Samaritan Village, the organization that administers the shelter, listened.
There was room for only 150 people inside an auditorium at the Elks Lodge, at 82-20 Queens Blvd., so several hundred protesters stood outside chanting and banging pots loud enough to be heard inside and at the hotel, just two blocks away.
“It is our intention to work closely with you,” Samaritan Village Executive Vice President and CEO Douglas Apple said. “We are not here to add problems and create issues.”
He admitted that the families were moved in June 6 without proper notification to Community Board 4 and elected officials, but pledged to set up a community advisement board as well as a telephone hotline.
Apple said the number of families in the Pan American Hotel is now 90, triple the number that moved in three weeks ago, and that they are receiving high-quality services with case managers.
“Our role is to help people move from temporary homes to permanent ones as quickly as possible,” he said.
Lorraine Stephens, assistant executive director of DHS, explained that 54,000 homeless, 23,000 of them children, are currently in shelters. “It is a citywide crisis,” she said. “What’s causing it we’re not sure, but we have the right to shelter.”
And according to Lisa Black, the DHS director of government relations, the homeless will continue to be at the Pan American Hotel.
“Until we can create additional capacity elsewhere in the system, we will utilize the building we’re currently in,” she said.
Bill Kregler, the borough president representative for Community Education Council 24, which he called the most overcrowded school district in the city, kicked off the public comments portion of the evening.
“You were misled and lied to by public officials,” he said angrily as the audience applauded. “People lied to this community and I call on [City Councilman] Danny Dromm to call for public hearings and after that we’re going to need some pink slips!”
Kregler stormed out of the meeting to cheers from the protesters outside the hall.
One after another, residents pounded home accusations that male residents of the hotel could be seen wandering through the neighborhoods checking out doors and windows.
“Our crime rate is already going up,” said a member of COMET, the civic association that staged last week’s protest at the hotel that drew more than a thousand people.
“There are not enough hospitals and not enough firehouses,” resident Jenny Shao said addressing the agency representatives. “How can we trust you at your word when you set up a homeless shelter without telling us? You knew you could take advantage of a neighborhood of immigrants.”
Cecelia Ghubis, 72, got a standing ovation when she said, “Now that de Blasio moved into Gracie Mansion, why didn’t he dump the homeless in his house in Brooklyn?”
Robert Valdes-Clausell, of the Newtown Civic Association, and a Land Use Committee member of CB 4, made the most of his allotted time of two minutes.
“The commercial heart of Queens on Queens Boulevard is not the right location to operate or maintain any sort of homeless shelter when far more economical locations already exist to house the homeless in the city’s foreclosed, multi-family building properties,” he said.
Valdes-Clausell added that his association will file a Freedom of Information Law request with DHS.
“We’ll get to the bottom of all the true players behind the scene that most likely had been plotting to profit at taxpayer expense from the conversion of a private hotel to a homeless shelter,” he said.
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4538.