By Bill Parry
The founder of an Elmhurt-based Christian non-profit had been trying to visit with the 30 homeless men living at the Maspeth Holiday Inn Express since the city moved them in Oct. 10. When Lester Lin, 33, was told volunteers from City Mission could spend time with the residents one day last week, he made sure they would not go to the hotel emtpy-handed.
Lin and several high school students from the Maspeth area got to work preparing care packages containing hats, gloves, toiletries and holiday greetings. As the City Mission group waited in the hotel lobby on the afternoon of Dec. 15, only a handful of the residents arrived to meet them.
“I was surprised when I was told the rest of the men were still at work,” Lin said. “These men have full-time jobs and many of them have held them for more than a decade. These are middle-class people who can’t afford to live in New York City and they end up in shelters. It’s horrible.”
And for the men in the Maspeth hotel, it was worse as they were subjected to protests each weekend in front of the hotel for nearly a month, until the Maspeth-Middle Village Task Force voted to stop the rallies on Dec. 2. Lin said the damage was done.
“One resident, Tyshem Gordon, told me the racket of them banging pots and using sirens would keep him awake, and he works the night shift,” Lin said. “And when he would leave to go to work, he’d use the back door to avoid problems and sneak to the front to catch his bus. People can be so judgmental and wrong. I think when I see people that have no voice and no one sticking up for them, I want to defend them.”
And empower area youth at the same time. Ryan Chang, 16, of Middle Village and Alfred Chan, 17, of Elmhurst, were in charge of handing out the care packages and they exchanged pleasentries, handshakes and hugs with each of the residents.
“There’s been a lot of protests and we just want to make sure they feel supported,” Ryan said.
The two high school students are members of City Mission, the organization Lin started in 2014 in Elmhurst after his neighbors rallied against homeless families the city had moved into the Pan American Hotel. Several of the protests involved racial epithets exchanged by the mostly Asian homeowners and the Pan Am residents, who were mainly black and Hispanic.
“Let’s just say Elmhurst didn’t put its best face on during those protests, especially our Asian community,” Lin said. “I knew I had some work to do to mend fences and help these people.”
What began with a simple barbecue for families living at the Elmhurst shelter in a nearby church parking lot in that summer of 2014 has grown into a youth movement with monthly events and holiday parties in numerous shelters and hotels across the borough.
As Chan handed a gift to one of the residents at the Holiday Inn Express, Ryan said, “We wanted to give back a little because we know how hard things have been for you.”
Later, he said, “I just hope they feel a bit of love, especially at this time of year.”
“It’s amazing and I’m overwhelmed by these kids and their Christmas spirit. It really says a lot about this community,” Carl Brennan, 49, said.
Brennan worked as a hair stylist for 30 years before he broke his neck in a car accident and can no longer raise his arms.
“I didn’t pay attention to those nightly protests that were held here,” he said. “I figure they didn’t understand that we are a lot of great people and they think we are just derelicts who don’t want to work and that’s just not the case at all.”
Steven, from Brooklyn, lost his home after it was declared unsafe from water damage and has not found affordable housing despite his full-time job at JCPenney.
“I’ve seen those protests every night and I have to say this reception is a lot nicer,” he said. “It’s very nice of them to take the time for us. Real nice around Christmas.”
Tyrone Burton, 52, lost his home in Jamaica when his relationship broke up. He was also unable to find affordable housing despite having a full-time job at Macy’s for 16 years.
“It’s really tough out there,” he said. “I just can’t afford $1,200 for a little studio apartment, and I can’t imagine what a one-bedroom apartment would cost, but I keep looking.”
Burton said the city is not “warehousing” the men as the protesters have charged.
“It’s actually OK here,” he said. “It’s a place where I can sleep, take a shower and get back to work until I can afford to get my own place.”
Steven said he never had any contact with the shelter protestors.
“They had a drone follow me once, but no one’s ever approached me,” he said. “We all work here, we’re all just trying to get out of here and get back on our feet.”
Lin and several City Mission volunteers went back to the Maspeth Holiday Inn Express for a second visit over the weekend.
“We helped them work on their resumés and we had a photographer shoot portraits of them,” he said. “Then we showed them how to use the photos to set up there own LinkedIn profiles. It was great.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr