By Bill Parry
Nearly 50 demonstrators rallied for the removal of the homeless families shelter at the Westway Motel in East Elmhurst Saturday, a day after a convicted child molester was removed from the facility.
Shouting “Westway, No Way” and carrying posters that read “The Westway is not the Best Way” the protesters demanded the closure of the shelter, at 71-11 Astoria Blvd., even after the Department of Homeless Services announced plans for a new policy change.
“DHS takes safety concerns in its shelters very seriously,” a spokesman said,“and within its legal obligation to provide shelter to anyone in need is moving forward with proposed policy changes regarding sex offenders in shelters housing families with children.”
No Level 2 or 3 sex offender would be placed in shelters housing families with children; they will be referred to the single adult shelter system.
James Bryant, 49, was moved out of The Westway last Friday after his presence in the shelter set off an uproar among Astoria and East Elmhurst residents. The convicted felon, a Level 2 sex offender, had spent 10 years in prison for a 2003 sexual assault of a 7-year-old girl, according to the state Criminal Justice Division, and was taken to an undisclosed location after pressure from elected officials.
“We really put the squeeze on DHS,” state Sen. Jose Peralta (D-East Elmhurst) said. “Costa Constantinides, Aravella Simotas and then Joe Crowley got involved. We jumped on it and in a day and a half he was voluntarily transferred.”
Constantinides is the councilman from Astoria, Simotas is the assemblywoman for the area and Crowley is the congressman for that part of Queens.
State Sen. Michael Gianaris’ Astoria office received so many phone calls from angry constituents that he joined the battle even though the Westway Motel is in Peralta’s district. “The continuing lack of information and transparency surrounding the Westway is extremely troubling and validates the community’s concerns about this location from the start,” Gianaris said.
Bryant was moved from a shelter in the Bronx to the Westway Motel, where DHSw has been housing 121 families since July.
“It’s unconscionable that a convicted violent sex offender is living in a residential shelter for families with children,” Constantinides said. “The Department of Homeless Services should not permit a situation like this. We have lacked adequate access to the shelter facilities and its management, so it came to me as a complete surprise that a violent sex offender has been permitted to live in this facility.”
The outrage over Bryant’s presence at the Westway was further compounded by DHS’s secrecy on the matter.
“The administration didn’t let us know and that’s the core issue of DHS’s continued lack of communication from Day 1 back in July,” Peralta said. “If they only communicated with us and the community, things would go smoother.”
The press secretary for DHS confirmed that Bryant had been moved out of the Westway but could say little more.
“DHS takes safety concerns very seriously and within its legal obligation to provide shelter to anyone in need is currently reviewing policies with regard to sex offenders in the families with children system.”
Astoria and East Elmhurst residents had planned on staging a peaceful protest outside the Westway Motel, but that was put on hold after the transfer. Meanwhile, Constantinides heard from DHS representatives Thursday morning.
“The Department of Homeless Services assured us that they will be more sensitive when they relocate individuals in the future and that they will be considerate of the needs of our residential neighborhoods,” Constantinides said.
That hardly placated Peralta. “The bottom line is no one wants Level 2 offender on our streets, so it’s good Bryant is gone,” he said. “But DHS is not off the hook, not by any means. They have to step up to the plate and communicate with us and the community better, and that’s the bottom line.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (718) 260–4538.