Photo: Ryan Kelley/QNS
Sam Esposito speaks in front of the crowd at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church on July 19 during a town hall meeting to combat a proposed homeless shelter.

Residents of Ozone Park came together by the hundreds this week to push back against Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) for placing a controversial homeless shelter in the heart of their neighborhood, and they plan on taking the city all the way to court.

Well over 500 people packed into the church hall of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary on July 19 for a town hall meeting with a panel of DHS officials and representatives from Lantern Community Services, a nonprofit that will operate the proposed shelter.

As announced by DHS in June, the shelter will be located at the Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church on 101st Avenue — which is already under renovation — and it will house 113 men with mental illnesses.

Sam Esposito, the civic activist largely responsible for organizing the meeting, began the proceedings with a 25-minute monologue before members of the panel spoke, followed by local elected officials and questions from members of the community. During the questioning, Esposito briefly interrupted to announce that he had found an attorney that will file a lawsuit next week against the city on behalf of Ozone Park.

“I believe that the city assumed that we were going to roll over and play dead,” Esposito said. “We’re going to show the city that we’re going to fight when it comes to our city and our community.”

When reached over the phone on July 20, Chris Murray, an attorney at Ruskin, Moscou, Faltischek, P.C., told QNS that the city has failed to follow a number procedures they are required to when creating a new homeless shelter, though he would not get into specifics. The lawsuit will seek an injunction that stops the city from developing the site until they comply with the laws in question, Murray said.

Photo: Ryan Kelley/QNS

Photo: Ryan Kelley/QNS

But it was neither the lawsuit nor the size of the crowd that showed Ozone Park’s willingness to to fight — it was the crowd’s demeanor.

While Esposito began his speech by thanking the members of the panel for coming to have a dialogue with the community, the panel was often showered with boos and heckling throughout the night. When Senator Joseph Addabbo, Councilman Eric Ulrich and Assembly members Mike Miller and Stacey Pheffer-Amato all spoke out against the shelter, they were met with massive applause.

Rather than direct his statements toward the panel, however, Addabbo took aim at de Blasio.

“Look what you’ve done: You’ve created fear, animosity, anger that I have not seen in any other prior administration,” Addabbo said. “If the mayor did the right thing and listened to us, let us work with you on solving this problem, we wouldn’t be here tonight.”

After meeting with DHS in June, Addabbo was given until Aug. 5 to come up with alternative locations for the shelter. While there are “a couple of decent spots” that he has found, he told QNS after the meeting, he also plans to use the feedback given by the community at the meeting in further discussions with the agency.

Miller explained that the system is backwards, alleging that “collusion” takes place between a landlord, DHS and service provider to find a site before coming to the community for its input. He also expressed concern over landlords making money on such deals, and pointed out the community’s belief that placing so many mentally ill men in close proximity to schools and churches is unsafe.

Photo: Ryan Kelley/QNS

Photo: Ryan Kelley/QNS

Ulrich, who said he went to preschool where the homeless shelter will be built, also began by calling out the mayor and saying that the members of the panel should not be the targets of the community’s frustration. Minutes later, however, he called out a panelist for rolling his eyes and shaking his head, and was met with raucous cheers.

“While you’re shaking your heads, I want you to take this message back to the mayor tonight,” Ulrich said. “We are compassionate. We want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. We have given you several other locations within Community Board 9 … We demand better. We want better. We are better.”

When it came time for questioning, DHS First Deputy Commissioner Jackie Bray did most of the answering; three of the six panel members never spoke.

When asked if there will be 24-hour NYPD security at the homeless shelter, Bray said that “there will be 24/7 security that is overseen by the NYPD, as all of our security is, but it is unlikely to be DHS police officers.”

Nearby, 102nd Precinct commander Captain Courtney Nilan could be seen shaking her head in disapproval.

When asked if Lantern had ever operated a shelter with only mentally ill men before, Lantern Chief Program Officer Amy Berg said they had not, but added that they have experience working with that population in other capacities.

In the end, Bray attempted to reiterate that homelessness is “an experience, not an identity,” and DHS clients come from every community in the city. She also commended the audience for its obvious compassion and willingness to show up in force to fight for something it believes in.

Then Bray added that “we don’t believe that our clients destroy communities at all,” and she was drowned out with boos.

Photo: Ryan Kelley/QNS

Photo: Ryan Kelley/QNS

Photo: Ryan Kelley/QNS

Photo: Ryan Kelley/QNS


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