Sunnyside residents have more questions than answers about hotel shelters after board meeting

Photo by Angela Matua/QNS

Representatives from the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) attended a Community Board 2 meeting in Sunnyside to answer a host of questions about a hotel in the area that is being used to house homeless families.

The hotel, a Best Western at 38-05 Hunters Point Ave., started admitting homeless families on Sept. 26. But elected officials were notified only 24 hours beforehand, angering residents and causing officials like Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, Congressman Joe Crowley and Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer to criticize the agency for its late notice.

Amanda Nasner, the Queens borough director of external affairs at DHS, and Lori Boozer, a special adviser to the agency, were at the Oct. 5 meeting to provide information about the hotel and answer questions from community board members.

Boozer said that there are currently 60,000 New Yorkers in the shelter system and 70 percent are families with children. About 33 percent of the families have an employed person heading the household.

According to Shawn Cook, director of program operations for the hotel’s service provider Childrens Community Services,  there are currently 57 families living in the Best Western with 128 children. There are 46 female-led households and 11 male-led households residing there.

Families have a curfew of 9 p.m. and there is 24-hour security with guards conducting perimeter checks every half hour to make sure people are not loitering, he said. Families also have access to services such as financial empowerment and job placement, and the Department of Education visits the facility every day to escort children to school. Only one child at the hotel attends a local school – P.S. 199, according to Nasner.

The conversation became heated when board member Patrick O’Brien, a lawyer, asked if the agency was following its own policies when making emergency declarations. New York City is mandated to house the homeless due to a 1981 court order. But O’Brien wanted to know why the agency was calling this an emergency when the city is aware that there is a homeless crisis.

“You’re doing these things under an emergency deceleration because the rules of the procurement policy board say that if it is an emergency you don’t have to go through an RFP (request for proposals), you don’t have to notify [the community] until after the event,” O’Brien said. “But you’re disregarding the fact that the emergency defined in the procurement boards rules require that it be an unforeseen event.” 

He then argued that homelessness has been an issue since the 1970s and wanted to know how the agency could call it an “unforeseen” event. Boozer told the crowd that the city does not currently have the capacity to house the dozens of families looking for shelter every night but did not address the community’s notification concerns.

“We’re in a situation now where we don’t have enough purpose-built shelters to house individuals so we may be aware of the crisis but when we go to a community and we ask them to build a shelter we’re met with resistance and oftentimes we cannot open the site,” Boozer said. “When we cannot open the site, we don’t have the vacancy rate that we need on any given night to be able to place the 150 families sitting at PATH (Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing).”

Stephen Cooper, a board member, asked the representatives when they began speaking with the owner of the Best Western to work out a deal to house homeless families, but Boozer and Nasner were unable to answer the question.

“That’s not information that we would have in our unit,” Boozer said. “We go by night-by-night capacity needs.”

According to a spokesperson for DHS, the agreement to rent rooms at the Best Western was “established” on Sept. 22 and elected officials and the community board were notified on Sept. 25.

In February, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his Turning the Tide plan, which will phase out the use of cluster apartments by 2021 and the use of commercial hotels as shelters by 2023. The administration said it would build 90 purpose-based shelters across the city so that homeless families could stay in their communities while they get back on their feet.

But residents argue that six years is too long. In Woodside, the city made a similar move in August 2016 when they started moving homeless families into a Quality Inn at 53-05 Queens Blvd. with no notification to the community.

A board member at the CB 2 meeting also claimed that the City View Inn at 33-17 Greenpoint Ave. in Long Island City recently started housing homeless families. Nasser said that Nolan had been given 24 hours’ notice in that case.

Juan and Tatiana Lopez, who have lived a block away from the Best Western on 38th Street for 14 years, said they have seen a marked increase in trash around their block, people loitering at late hours and the smell of marijuana.

“We have three kids, 8, 10 and 16, all boys, and we don’t want that influence on them,” Tatiana Lopez said. “They’re seeing firsthand during the day, we’re smelling it coming into our house.”

The couple also see people they don’t recognize walking around their block later than the DHS curfew of 9 p.m.

“Usually the block is very quiet during late hours but they’re talking about curfew – we see people walking by at 11 p.m., midnight, even past midnight,” Tatiana Lopez said. “We’re a very tight block. We know each other. We know even family that comes to visit so for us to see someone it stands out.”

Juan Lopez said he felt that there was no transparency during the meeting and that the 24-hour notification policy “is ridiculous.” He would like DHS to phase out the use of hotels within six months to a year.

“I have a brother that’s been in the system and it’s very hard but he, two to three months and he’s back on his feet, gets a job and rents a room,” he said. 

Denise Keenan-Smith, chairperson of Community Board 2, suggested that DHS come back and answer additional questions for the board at a later meeting.

“We remain committed to continued engagement with this community and communities across the five boroughs as we implement our plan to finally end the use of decades-old stop-gap measures — including the 17-year-old cluster program and use of commercial hotels, which dates back to the Lindsay Administration — and replace them with a smaller number of more effective, borough-based shelters,” said Issac McGinn, spokesperson for DHS.

You can watch the full meeting below: