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Photo: Ryan Kelley/QNS
Photo: Ryan Kelley/QNS
Sam Esposito (right) speaks at press conference on Aug. 7 alongside E. Christopher Murray (center), Slawomir Platta (left) and other elected officials to announce his hunger strike and the lawsuit filed against the city pertaining to the proposed homeless shelter in Ozone Park.

Construction is well underway at the former Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church on 101st Avenue in Ozone Park where a homeless shelter for 113 mentally ill men will open this coming winter, but aside from the green walls surrounding the site, something out of the ordinary showed up there this week.

A green and gray camping tent has been pitched on the sidewalk, tied down to a pair of cars parked along the curb that are covered in signs that read “Say No To Shelter” and “Hunger Strike.” Standing outside the tent with an explanation, Sam Esposito said he will be living in the tent and refraining from eating until Mayor Bill de Blasio agrees to meet with elected officials in the community to discuss an alternative to the current shelter plan.

“I don’t think the mayor is hearing us,” said Esposito, who also organized a widely attended town hall meeting about the shelter in July. “I believe if this is the only way I’m going to get the mayor’s attention, then I’m going to do whatever I have to do.”

Esposito announced his hunger strike at a press conference that he arranged on Aug. 7 at the site, where he was also joined by E. Christopher Murray, an attorney at Ruskin, Moscou, Faltischek, P.C. Murray announced that he had officially filed a lawsuit in the New York State Supreme Court of Queens County that morning on behalf of the residents of Ozone Park to prevent the homeless shelter project from being completed.

Murray, who also fought against the proposed shelter in Glendale that recently resurfaced, said the current administration does not consider the people who live in the neighborhoods where it plans to place shelters, and it does not comply with legal requirements. The lawsuit claims that there has been no review done under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQR) to assess the effect this shelter would have on the surrounding neighborhood, and a state statute limits the number of beds in a facility housing individuals with mental health needs to 48, Murray explained.

“It’s just been a reckless, inconsiderate, negligent way of approaching a problem that exists,” Murray said. “If they just followed the law and engaged the communities they could come up with appropriate solutions, but they have failed to do so.”

A construction worker looks down at the small crowd gathered for the press conference (Photo: Ryan Kelley/QNS).

A construction worker on the roof of 85-15 101st Ave. looks down at the small crowd gathered for the press conference (Photo: Ryan Kelley/QNS).

Also present at the press conference were Assemblyman Mike Miller, Senator Joseph Addabbo, attorney and state Senate candidate Slawomir Platta and about two dozen other local residents.

Platta offered his support by handing a check on behalf of his law firm for Esposito to put toward the legal costs of the suit.

“This should be an example for any officials and anyone who can support this,” Platta said. “Let’s make no mistake: this is a retaliation of the city against the communities that did not support elected officials, and especially the mayor.”

Miller again criticized the Department of Homeless Services’ practice of reviewing and approving proposals for shelters from nonprofit providers before starting a community dialogue, and he said that the mentally ill men to be sheltered on 101st Avenue need “professional help in a professional facility before they go anywhere for shelter.”

Addabbo echoed Miller’s distaste for the way the city is handling the homelessness crisis and said that this is only the beginning of the community’s efforts to fight back.

“It just gets worse. We have a whole summer ahead of rallies and speaking out and lawsuits and everything else we have to do within our means to protect our communities, protect our children and also serve the homeless,” Addabbo said.

Esposito last ate a meal on Sunday, Aug. 5, and he said that he spoke to the commanding officer of the 102nd Precinct, Captain Courtney Nilan, who told him he can stay in his tent as long as he doesn’t engage with the construction workers at the site.

“The cops have been wonderful actually. They checked on me all night. They stopped by and made sure that I was safe,” said Esposito, who is a former NYPD officer. “The community has been overwhelmingly supportive and we all came together. For us, that’s an amazing feat.”

DHS spokesperson Arianna Fishman issued a statement to QNS on Aug. 8 in response to the lawsuit:

“Every community has a role to play in addressing this citywide challenge and we’re committed to open engagement with all communities across the five boroughs as we transform a shelter system decades in the making,” Fishman said. “We’re moving forward with opening this facility as soon as possible to give homeless New Yorkers the opportunity to be sheltered closer to the communities they called home before winter approaches. We will review the lawsuit if and when we receive it.”

The tent on 101st Avenue where Sam Esposito is staying during his hunger strike (Photo: Ryan Kelley)

The tent on 101st Avenue where Sam Esposito is staying during his hunger strike (Photo: Ryan Kelley)

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