By Bill Parry
Elected officials fanned out across the borough this week performing what has become an end-of-summer ritual as they handed out donated backpacks to needy children who will head back to school in a few weeks.
When City Councilman Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) received an offer of 200 backpacks filled with notebooks and pencils from the Queens Center Mall, he had them sent over to the children living at the Boulevard Family Center, the shelter for homeless families at the former Pan American Hotel.
“The 800 people that are living here are now my constituents and I am their councilman and I have to take care of them,” Dromm said as he distributed the back-to-school gear to dozens of laughing children and their mothers in a rear parking lot at the facility, at 79-00 Queens Blvd.
“I just wanted to be here today because I know of the controversy here and I wanted to lead by example,” Dromm said. “The people that live in this building are the victims of homelessness and should not be re-victimized by divisiveness in the neighborhood.”
Dromm was a featured speaker at an anti-shelter rally a week after the city Department of Homeless Services began moving families into the facility June 6 without notifying the public. He spoke again at a town hall meeting June 30 but disassociated himself with the civic associations behind the rallies because of what he called “racial overtones.”
Outside that meeting at the Elks Lodge, at 82-20 Queens Blvd., the mostly Asian protesters traded insults with a group of the homeless residents, who are mostly black and Hispanic.
“I’m just not going to be a part of a vitriolic demonstration against anybody, I won’t tolerate it and I’ve been fighting against it my entire life,” Dromm said.
The situation grew so ugly that when a third rally was scheduled for the evening of July 22, the DHS hired school buses to take the children away from the facility for a night at the movies rather than hear the crowd.
“Imagine trying to explain what was happening to an 8-year-old child,” resident Shakema Brown said after collecting backpacks for her kids.
The 28-year-old mother of three, including a 3-month-old, moved in with some family after her house in Pennsylvania burned down.
“We moved into the Farragut Houses in Brooklyn, but soon after they [her family] got evicted and we ended up here at the Pan Am,” she said.
Brown added that she and her children were among the first to move into the facility June 6.
“It’s come a long way since then, there was nothing here at the beginning, but the people from Samaritan Village have done a really good job making it more livable for everyone,” she said. “Even the meals are better. When you have people trying to help you, it’s a lot less frustrating.”
Sheila Jones nodded in agreement.
“I’m a grandmother caught in a situation who’s trying to get back on my feet. We all have a story about why we’re displaced,” she said.
Jones moved back to Queens, where she was born and raised, after losing her home in Georgia. She said she was surprised when she heard the tone of the protesters.
“Let’s all go to City Hall, but don’t do this in front of a shelter,” Jones said. “I’ll go with you if you want to talk to the mayor or the governor, we’ll go talk to them with you. Isn’t the Statue of Liberty still out there in the Hudson River? I mean, this is New York, right?”
After Dromm finished handing out the backpacks, he had a message for the protesters as well as one or more political types who have grandstanded on the issue.
“You can never blame the families and certainly not the children for being in this situation,” he said. “Sixty percent of the adults living here have jobs, but mostly they’re working for minimum wage and you can’t afford an apartment on minimum wage. That’s why they find themselves in this situation.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.