PanAm fight not about race, organizer says

By Bill Parry

One of the lead organizers of the protests at the Pan American Hotel in June and July is hitting the reset button. Jennifer Chu thinks the concerned citizens of Elmhurst, and its surrounding neighborhoods, have been unfairly maligned as racists.

The Elmhurst resident may have a better read on her neighbors than most. She is a member of Community Board 4, the Newtown Civic Association and COMET, the Communities of Maspeth and Elmhurst Together, the group that started the protests against the shelter.

“I’m dismayed how some of the media has portrayed us as racist and anti-homeless,” she said. “We don’t even know them, so how can we hate them? We are against the mayor and the city for the way they went about setting up the homeless shelter with no dialogue with the community.”

Chu believes the half dozen civic associations that rushed to the Pan American Hotel to protest June 6 were unorganized.

“If you listened to our speakers, the focus was always on the city, but we may have strayed from our message that this particular facility is no place for a families.”

The Pan American, now known officially as the Boulevard Family Residence, is currently housing nearly 650 residents from 180 families, nearly half of them children.

During a Community Board 5 hearing May 22, city Department of Homeless Services Assistant Commissioner Lisa Black called the hotel unsuitable as a shelter. The agency’s commissioner, Gilbert Taylor, confirmed that the rooms have no kitchens and that three catered meals a day are brought into the facility.

“We’re new to this and we’re learning along the way and if this ends up helping the whole population of the city’s homeless population and the way the city government deals with them, then this will have been worth it,” she said.

Much has changed since a thousand people turned out for that first protest after DHS quietly moved 21 homeless families into the vacant hotel at 79-00 Queens Blvd. A town hall meeting followed June 30 with some of the mostly Asian protesters trading insults with a group of the homeless residents, who were primarily black and Hispanic, outside the Elks Lodge at 82-20 Queens Blvd.

The situation became so ugly that when a third protest was scheduled July 22, DHS hired four school buses to take the children from the facility, and their families, to the movies so they would not see and hear the rally. Councilman Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) decided to no longer participate in the rallies after being a featured speaker at the first two.

Chu and her associates knew it was time to adjust their approach. First, they formed a coalition of the half dozen civic associations and called it Elmhurst United.

“We want to have a unified voice,” she said. “Now it’s not just about this Chinese group or that Filipino group. By forming a coalition it’s about speaking on behalf of the good of the community with one voice.”

At the new group’s first event Tuesday at Ping’s Restaurant at 82-02 Queens Blvd., Elmhurst United displayed petitions bearing 3,000 signatures that will be sent to Mayor Bill de Blasio, city Comptroller Scott Stringer, Borough President Melinda Katz and several other elected officials, including Dromm.

“I appreciate her efforts, but I hope they change more than their tone, more than their message,” Dromm said. “I hope they do some real work to heal the wounds on both sides. The insults that were hurled at the Asian community were unacceptable. The insults that were hurled at the homeless is equally unacceptable.”

Dromm added that he would stay away until he sees concrete changes.

“I’m cautious how people will handle this going forward,” he said. “It’s my job to bring the community together, not divide it.”

Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718-260-4538.

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