Following three angry protests over the past two months against the conversion of the Pan American Hotel in Elmhurst into a homeless shelter, a rally was held Wednesday in front of the site to counter the earlier gatherings and to show support for the facility’s residents while calling for permanent housing.
Picture the Homeless, the group founded by two homeless men in 1999 that held the event, said the main goal was to “underscore the real problem ... the lack of housing affordable to working-class New Yorkers, and the city’s failure to do something about it.”
Located at 79-00 Queens Blvd., the building is now home to nearly 200 families, some of whom attended the rally, which drew a much smaller crowd than the prior events. They shared several concerns.
One resident, Christine Napolitano, said, “I’m grateful that I have a roof over my head,” but she complained that the four members of her family, including her three children, aged 16, 11 and 5, have to live in a single room.
“We’re on top of each other on a constant basis,” she said. “My kids want to kill each other. We’re not animals. We’re people who really need help. Things have to change.”
The city pays nearly $4000 a month to house Napolitano’s family, she said. And the space doesn’t even include cooking facilities.
“There is no place to eat here. It’s not allowed,” she said. “The food you wouldn’t give to your dog.”
And, once the new school year begins, she said it will be difficult for her children to continue attending the same specialized schools in the Bronx to which they are accustomed.
“They’re comfortable in those schools,” she said. She would like to be able to return with her family to the Bronx, but said, “Any changes have to be approved by the higher-ups.”
Another resident, Sheila Carroll, who has two preteen children, was similarly grateful but also expressed concerns. “I thank God for the shelter,” she said. “But I’m trying to transition back to life. Every day I’m pounding the pavement looking for affordable housing. We should have affordable housing in every section of the city. I’m tired of getting rejected.”
Carmen Rosario, who also lives in the shelter, said, “I’m here to fight. I’ve been fighting since I got here.” As the mother of a newborn and a toddler, she is disturbed over the sleeping accommodations they were provided.
“The toddler has to sleep in an infant crib,” she said. She also said the elder child got sick from the food and has a hard time keeping food down now. “Everything is liquid, liquid, liquid,” she said. “My kids need nutrition. They’re not getting the nutrition they need.”
She has also felt backlash from neighbors of the shelter. “The residents around here don’t want us here. I’m hopeless,” she said.
Arvernetta Henry, a leader at PTH who led the gathering in chanting, “Shelters are a waste of money; we need permanent housing, sonny,” and “Shelter money is poorly spent; we need money to pay our rent,” said, “We have to work together to stop the system from opening scattered shelters. There are enough vacant apartments.”
Also on hand were members of CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities and DRUM South Asian Organizing Center.
On behalf of CAAAV, its executive director, Cathy Dang, said, “The city needs to invest in permanent affordable housing as the long-term solution to homelessness and community displacement. We do not condone the rhetoric shaming homeless individuals and families. Everyone has a right to housing and we are all fighting together for that common goal.”
DRUM’s director Fahd Ahmed said, “As an organization of low-income South Asian immigrants, we know that Band-Aids ... are not enough. In the world’s richest city, we have the ability and the responsibility to provide permanent housing for all New Yorkers.”
According to organizers of the rally, the city spends $1 billion on the shelter system, and the homeless are offered little help to find permanent housing.