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Rat problem could harm homeless shelter’s permanent status at Pan American hotel

By Bill Parry

The owner of an auto repair shop might derail permanent status for the homeless shelter at the old Pan American Hotel in Elmhurst. Samuel Velez, the owner of Aamco Transmissions, at 79-14 Queens Blvd., says he has a problem with rats and it’s the shelter’s fault.

The Pan American hotel sits right next door to Velez’s repair shop, at 79-00 Queens Blvd.

“I’ve been here for 50 years and never had a problem like this,” Velez said. “When that was a hotel, everything ran great, no problem. Now it’s a shelter and they don’t take care of their garbage. They just throw everything in the back and leave it. Now the rats are everywhere. They come into my shop and do damage and that’s costing me money.”

Velez, 65, added that he has complained to the staff that runs the Boulevard Family Center at the hotel, “but the problem just gets worse.”

Samaritan Village refused to comment, deferring to officials at the city Department for Homeless Services. A DHS spokeswoman said, “We take the safety of our clients very seriously and we are working with the provider to ensure the garbage is removed quickly.”

The civic group Elmhurst United has complained about the trash and vermin since November and they have seen little of no action, according to spokeswoman Jennifer Chu.

“They have this area where they just dump their garbage and it just sits there until collection day,” she said. “You’d be surprised how much garbage 800 people create in a single day.”

They were joined by state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) at a rally in March that called on the city to reject a long-term contract with Samaritan Village based on the conditions inside the shelter.

“We’ve sent letters to DHS and to the comptroller saying the city is violating its own laws,” Avella said. “There are rats, roaches, garbage, no kitchens in their units. The facility is inadequate.”

Originally housed under the terms of an “emergency declaration,” the proposed long-term $42 million contract with Samaritan Village has already gone through the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services and is now pending at the comptroller’s office.

The rat problem could be a major roadblock.

“Let me be clear: My office will not register any contract for a permanent homeless shelter where serious health and safety violations have been found,” Comptroller Scott Stringer said. “The recent Department of Investigation found shelter sites with rats, roaches, fire hazards-conditions which continue to this day at shelter sites around the city. This is not an environment in which any New Yorker should be living and it will not be tolerated.”

DHS hopes to have the garbage remedied soon with the purchase of trash compactor. The Department of Sanitation will provide proper containers with lids.

The comptroller will be watching.

“As my office reviews the contracts pending before us, including for the Pan American site, I will do all within my power to ensure that DHS is providing safe living conditions at all of its proposed permanent shelter facilities.”

Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparry@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4538.

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