Queens pols welcome shakeup at Department of Homeless Services

Protesters outside the homeless shelter at the former Pan American hotel in Elmhurst this summer.
File photo

Lawmakers and activists in Queens who have repeatedly called for reforms at the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) finally got their wish on Tuesday.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city would “evaluate and seek potential reorganizations” at the DHS. That process began with the resignation of DHS Commissioner Gilbert Taylor, who will remain with the de Blasio administration as an adviser. Human Resources Administration Commissioner Steven Banks will oversee the evaluation effort.

The shakeup comes as New York City continues to grapple with record levels of homelessness citywide, as more than 50,000 people either live on the streets or in shelters. Since de Blasio took office, the DHS — working with nonprofit partners — opened emergency shelters at defunct hotels in Queens, including the Pan American in Elmhurst, the Clarion hotel in East Elmhurst and the Verve in Long Island City.

The DHS also championed plans to make the Pan American shelter (also called the Boulevard Family Residence) permanent; City Comptroller Scott Stringer repeatedly rejected a city contract for that shelter over concerns regarding conditions at the hotel. The city also continues to pursue, over the objections of local residents and elected officials, the construction of a transitional housing shelter at a former Glendale factory.

Two Queens lawmakers critical of the city’s shelter system — state Senators Toby Ann Stavisky and Tony Avella — welcomed news of the DHS shakeup in separate statements issued following the mayor’s announcement Tuesday.

Stavisky said Taylor’s departure as DHS commissioner “presents an opportunity to reshape the way the DHS operates.” She remarked that her inquiries and concerns to the DHS regarding conditions at the Pan American shelter repeatedly “fell upon deaf ears.” The senator further expressed hope that the city would move away from the traditional shelter system and toward “supportive housing,” a concept in which homeless people are provided with residential and various social services to recover and rebuild their lives.

“With the number of people in shelters increasing from 53,000 to more than 57,000 over the past two years, we as a city must acknowledge that homelessness is a serious issue,” Stavisky said. “Restructuring the agency in coordination with the Human Resources Administration will hopefully lead to improved services for clients and better communication for all.”

Avella was much sharper in his criticism of the DHS, charging that “there was an abject failure to self-critique and an unwillingness to communicate” at the agency under Taylor’s watch.

“With today’s announcement that he will be stepping down, I have renewed hope for the agency under Steven Banks’ direction and look forward to seeing an overhaul of DHS,” Avella said. “His testimony during [a state Senate] task force’s public hearing on the current state of homelessness provided valuable insight into the challenges we face in addressing the rise of the homeless population.”

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