City called to task on Pan-Am shelter by pols, civic groups

Photo courtesy of the office of Tony Avella

A homeless shelter housed at the former Pan American Hotel in Elmhurst continues to draw criticism from a local lawmaker and city groups demanding accountability.

State Senator Tony Avella held a rally with civic group Elmhurst United on Sunday to oppose the conditions of the temporary homeless shelter, which does not include kitchens in the family units. Despite having been thrice rejected by the city comptroller, Samaritan Village, a nonprofit organization that runs the shelter, submitted another proposal to make the emergency shelter permanent.

Avella argued that the city needs to provide more appropriate shelters for those in need and include the community in the site selection process. The Queens Boulevard site has multiple open complaints and violations, along with civil penalties related to a failure to certify a correction of one of the violations, according to the Department of Buildings’ website.

“When it comes to site selection, rather than proactively finding suitable buildings capable of housing the homeless population, it settles for the first warehouse that presents itself,” he said.

The rally came following a Senate task force hearing on Wednesday, at which Department of Homeless Services (DHS) Commissioner Gilbert Taylor testified that he was completely unaware of allegations that Building Department officials were denied access to the Pan Am facility (also known as the Boulevard Family Center) for inspections.

THE COURIER/Photo by Alina Suriel
THE COURIER/Photo by Alina Suriel

Avella, a vocal opponent of the shelter who led the Senate forum, brought up the issue after a testimony by Taylor that references routine inspections on shelters.

The senator pointed to records on DOB website that indicated that inspectors were denied access to the site during a Sept. 22 inspection related to complaints that the site was having renovations done without the proper permits. While no alterations were observed on the building’s exterior or in first-floor common areas, a man in the lobby denied the agency access to guest rooms.

“You’re reporting that you have these inspections going on, but what happens when the agency who is responsible is denied access?” Avella said.

Taylor claimed that, to his knowledge, the DOB, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and the Fire Department have all had routine access to the site. He said that he would need to follow up with Avella to get more information on the reported refusal at the Pan Am shelter.

“To your question about the Buildings Department being denied access to the boulevard family shelter in Queens now housed in a former Pan Am hotel, I am not aware of that,” Taylor said.

Representatives of Samaritan Village were not immediately available for comment.

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