Thunder, lightning, rain and oppressing heat couldn’t keep thousands of residents from Maspeth and the surrounding areas from packing into the Martin Luther High School gym on Thursday night to state their case as to why the city should scrap its proposed plan to convert the Holiday Inn Express at 59-40 55th Rd. into a homeless shelter. Michael Locascio organized the session with the help of the COMET (Communities of Maspeth and Elmhurst Together) civic association.
Residents had plenty to say about the shelter, sharing their concerns over the safety of their children — the hotel is located within a few blocks of a school and a playground — and the fact that there are already three homeless shelters within the area.
They also expressed little faith in Acacia Network, who would be running the shelter, to provide the proper services for the shelter residents and to keep them safe. The other shelters that Acacia operates have had a history of violent incidents.
Amid a chorus of boos and chants of “No homeless shelter!” from the heated crowd, Steven Banks, commissioner of the city’s Human Resources Administration (HRA), took the stage to try and ease some of the community’s concerns as he explained what the plan is for the shelter.
Banks first cited the depressing stats regarding the homelessness crisis in the city, as anywhere between 58,000 and 59,000 New Yorkers are homeless on any given night.
“One of the changes I wanted to make was to create a process in which we open new shelters and we give the community notification, knowing full well that we might end up with meetings like this. The plan with respect to this shelter is an Oct. 1 opening,” Banks said, his words failing to stem the outrage from guests.
The plan is for the shelter to house adult families; one quarter of the people in those families are working and 43 percent of them are receiving Social Security disability benefits, according to Banks.
“There are 243 residents of Maspeth in shelters around the city right now,” Banks said. “By looking at clients who are either working or receiving disability benefits through Social Security, we want to give them a better place to be.”
Banks also said that there will be “peace officers” on site 24 hours a day to protect the residents, and HRA will work with the 104th Precinct to patrol the areas around the shelter.
“The New York City Police Department has a management team that is working with DHS currently,” said Captain Mark Wachter, commanding officer of the 104th Precinct. “When a security plan comes to the Police Department, we — myself the precinct commander, and other top officials of the NYPD, and DHS including the commissioner behind me — will review that and I will have my personal input on those plans if we open a shelter in this precinct.”
Elected officials at the meeting backed the community and vowed to fight for Maspeth.
Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley gave an impassioned speech, blasting de Blasio and his administration for wanting to put yet another shelter in the area. Some audience members jeered her at the start, and Crowley assured them she was on their side.
“It’s crystal clear, Community Board 5 (CB 5) is on de Blasio’s hit list,” Crowley said. “We’ve been told that we need to do our fair share when helping the homelessness crisis, but in a low-density community with many one- to two-family homes, we don’t have our fair share of basic city amenities. We don’t have adequate public transportation, a hospital or even enough seats in our local schools.”
Crowley noted that both the mayor and Banks have previously stated that shelter hotels are the wrong approach. The best way to solve the city’s homelessness crisis is to create permanently affordable housing, not warehousing the homeless in inadequate hotel rooms, according to Crowley.
“It must end here,” Crowley said to applause from the crowd. “We are here tonight as one community as only Maspeth can be. We are going to fight together. We are going to fight this fight and we’re not going to stop until we win.”
State Senator Joseph Addabbo further pleaded with Banks to listen to the community and not shut them out of this discussion.
“We need to help these people,” Addabbo said of the homeless. “Dumping them in the Holiday Inn does not help them. Dumping them in the Pan Am does not help them. Dumping them in Glendale does not help them.”
Noticeably absent from the meeting was Assemblywoman Margaret Markey and Congresswoman Grace Meng, much to the dismay of those in attendance, who reminded the elected officials that this is an election year. Both did, however, have staff members present.
Irate residents then took the microphone and spoke out against the shelter.
One resident was concerned for the safety of his two children who play at Frontera Park, and has seen the homeless from the Pan Am Hotel already causing problems in Maspeth. Many supported his claims, also noting that their property values are dropping and wondered how the neighborhood was assessed for shelter placement.
Jerry Drake, member of CB 5, summed up the feelings of everyone at the meeting: “This is unbelievable. This shelter will be built over my dead body.”
Many of the people who could not make it into the gymnasium for the meeting made their way to the Holiday Inn to start a protest outside of the establishment.
“It’s unfair. We have to pay our property taxes and this is what they use it for,” said Diane Conlan, a lifelong resident of Maspeth who was protesting outside the hotel. “It is just going to bring in more crime, I hate to say it but it’s true. We are already inundated with shelters. It’s unfair.”