Effort to reactivate public space in Sunnyside slowed by homeless encampment on Bliss Plaza

Lele Yau poses for a portrait next to her belongings where she has created a makeshift home under the 46th Street 7 train station, on Monday, Feb. 28, 2022. (Photo by Paul Frangipane)

For generations, Sunnyside was split into two distinctive neighborhoods by Queens Boulevard but the city sought to unite the two enclaves in 2014 by creating two public “plazas” beneath the 7 train that runs overhead: one at 40th Street and the main location at 46th Street known as Bliss Plaza.

As part of the project, the Department of Transportation leveled out the street to create a one-level pedestrian area and added tables and chairs and decorative planters. Sunnyside Shines, the business improvement district, took over maintenance at the plazas and provided cultural programming that brought the community together.

Now, as the weather is warming up, new Sunnyside Shines Executive Director Dirk McCall’s plan to “reactivate” Bliss Plaza, in particular, has been slowed by around a half dozen unhoused individuals who have occupied the public space for nearly a year with large piles of their possessions taking up much of the area.

A homeless encampment can be seen from the stairs of the 46th Street 7 train station in Sunnyside, Queens, on Monday, Feb. 28, 2022. (Photo by Paul Frangipane)

“I’m not sure how we will start up all the programming again at Bliss, our main site, with a homeless encampment there,” McCall told QNS. “We are hoping a solution is found and the people living there are connected to housing and services.”

The city’s Department of Social Services and Department of Homeless Services has been doing just that with outreach teams canvassing the area multiple times every day to engage and offer services to the people who are experiencing homelessness not just at Bliss Plaza but at other locations in Sunnyside and Woodside such as Corporal Lou Lodati Playground and the Sunnyside Library branch across Greenpoint Avenue.

“Our dedicated outreach teams remain focused on building trust as they encourage New Yorkers experiencing unsheltered homelessness to transition off the streets and subways to help them get back on their feet,” a DSS-DHS spokesperson said. “We know it can take hundreds of engagements to make those important breakthroughs. To that end, our outreach teams canvass this neighborhood multiple times every day and have made four recent placements from this area to transitional or permanent housing opportunities, and will keep revisiting again to reassess and continue building on this progress.”

Lele Yau poses for a portrait next to her belongings where she has created a makeshift home under the 46th Street 7 train station, on Monday, Feb. 28, 2022. (Photo by Paul Frangipane)

On a recent visit to Bliss Plaza, QNS found three people at the location including 69-year-old Lele Yau who has been living in the public space for about a year. She says she lived with her mother on Skillman Avenue but lost the apartment several years ago after her mother died. Born in Hong Kong, Yau now sleeps on an air mattress under a makeshift roof that she takes down and puts away each morning.

“I am homeless and I need a place to stay,” Yau said. “I need to have a little bit of a normal people’s life.”

She said she is prepared to leave or move if she has to but has resisted efforts to move her to a nearby shelter. Yau has storage space on Northern Boulevard for her winter items once the weather gets warmer but she currently keeps many of her possessions with her in several shopping carts and keeps her area clear with frequent sweepings while spending her days sitting on a folding chair reading and listening to the news and weather on a radio.

“I feel safe here,” Yau said. “I think the people here, they don’t like the homeless. I am not mentally ill and I try to live a normal life. I read a book, I even knit clothing. I never bother [anybody].”

Lele Yau’s belongings make up her makeshift home underneath the 46th Street 7 train station in Sunnyside, Queens, on Monday, Feb. 28, 2022. Shopping carts filled with blankets create her walls she uses to protect herself from the cold. (Photo by Paul Frangipane)

She said she stays on the pedestrian plaza because there is a lot of space and provides some shelter from the elements.

“Wherever I stay, I want to have a normal life, not like I’m garbage,” Yau said. “I want to feel good about myself.”

She has family in the neighborhood but they’ve been estranged for years. Yau added that she understood she may have to vacate the plaza soon.

“We have human rights. We are not animals. We are human,” Yau said. “I never bother [anybody]. I am not a selfish person, but what can I do?”

A Long Island City resident who lived on 45th Street in Sunnyside for ten years before moving last summer, says that Yau has been living on Bliss Plaza since 2019.

“I was working with the community board to try and get her a place to live,’ said Dana, who did not want her last name used. “We also had homeless outreach and police try to help her numerous times. She’s hoarding trash and that creates an eyesore for the people of the neighborhood. We don’t mind the homeless, but when you’re creating a big mess that’s attracting vermin, then it becomes a problem.”

Additional reporting by Paul Frangipane