City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer’s recent column about how he and his family fell into homelessness should remind us that we have been quick to demonize of Queens shelter residents.
After the city moved 21 families into the former Pan American hotel in June without notifying elected officials or the community, the outrage was palpable. The city flubbed the job and angry protests were held as irate residents rose up against their new neighbors who had been bused into the shelter.
The tone of the first two rallies was so incendiary that the city Department of Homeless Services took the children to the movies to protect them from the verbal venom of the third round.
Now a picture is beginning to emerge of the 188 families who live in the Elmhurst shelter. Some 60 percent of the adults have jobs, according to one estimate, which means they belong to the swelling ranks of the working poor. This does not gibe with the stereotype of the welfare recipient who refuses to work and lives life on the dole.
In Van Bramer’s case, he wrote in an op-ed column Sunday that his father was a journeyman pressman but was drinking heavily and his family ended up homeless in Woodside with nowhere to go. Van Bramer was a baby.
His story is similar to what has happened to many people forced into the emergency shelter system 40 years later, but few would ever dream that the Sunnyside councilman had spent weeks as a baby in a Harlem shelter.
At the root of the city’s record high homeless population is the lack of affordable housing.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged to build over 10 years 200,000 affordable units, most of which would be carved out of existing housing. This is the tale of two cities: those who can afford to live here and those who can’t.
Income inequality is a big part of the equation, but the affordable housing crisis is creeping up the economic ladder and clawing at the middle class. Manhattan rents have driven people to western Queens, where gentrification is transforming former industrial tracts and making this side of the river more expensive.
Some developers have agreed to set aside affordable housing in a few Long Island City buildings, but Queens needs more relief. Resistance to affordable units in some pockets of the borough is blocking progress.
Unlike the new renters and buyers flocking to Queens, the Pan Am hotel residents have few choices.
Let’s hope Van Bramer can put his own experience to work in helping the city find homes for shelter residents. He’s already taken a big step.