Amid frequent outbursts that resulted in at least one attendee being escorted out by police, a crowd of about 300 area residents packed the auditorium at the Museum of the Moving Image on July 23, concerned about the recent conversion of the Westway Motor Inn in East Elmhurst into a potentially permanent shelter for homeless families. In the end many of their questions were left unanswered.
The elected officials on the panel, Councilman Costa Constantinides (D-Astoria), state Sen. Jose Peralta (D-East Elmhurst), and Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas (D-Astoria), all of whom have expressed concern over the suitability of the inn as a shelter, were joined by representatives of the Department of Homeless Services, social services provider Women In Need, Community Board 1 and the 114th Precinct.
Rose Marie Poveromo, president of the United Community Civic Association, emceed the event, and, with regularity, had to call for order as the crowd repeatedly threatened to get out of hand.
“It was a deliberate, furtive and covert operation reeking of disrespect of our local elected officials, community leaders and the community at large, all sensitive to the crisis but deeply concerned with possible consequences,” Poveromo said.
Many issues were skirted; one irate audience member shouted out, “Anybody know anything here?”
Many of the affected parties were as disturbed by the lack of transparency in the conversion as they were by the deed itself.
“We were advised after the fact,” Poveromo said.
A main concern was whether the conversion would be permanent.
“It’s difficult to answer that question,” said Lorraine Stephens, first deputy commissioner for DHS, who added, “The city of New York is aggressively working to move as many people out of shelters as possible.”
Questions on environmental studies and the citizenship of the residents were mostly left unanswered.
In a joint letter to Gilbert Taylor, commissioner of DHS, Constantinides, Peralta and Simotas, along with Congressman Joseph Crowley (D-Bronx, Queens) and state Sen. Mike Gianaris (D-Astoria), said, they were informed of DHS’ intention on July 8, one day prior to the conversion.
“We were robbed of the opportunity to be part of the process,” Constantinides said, calling it “a unilateral decision.”
Bonnie Stone, president and CEO of WIN, estimated the cost to the city to maintain a family at the shelter on Astoria Boulevard is $100 a day, prompting Charles Knipe, an area resident, to ask, “Wouldn’t it be cheaper to pay the rent in the apartment they’re being evicted from?”
Many other audience members, most of whom live close to the shelter, were quick to line up to let their concerns be heard.
“I am simply appalled by the actions of a few that have affected so many in a negative way,” Anthony Benjamin Aldorasi, former principal of IS 141 and a lifelong resident of the area, said.
He wanted to know where the children now residing in the shelter, reportedly totaling 129, would be educated.
Stephens explained that 40 percent of the children are under school age. Those who are between the ages of six and 12, would have the option to remain at their current schools, with transportation to be provided.
Older children would continue to attend their regular schools, she said.
Stone estimated that among the sheltered children between the ages of five and 12, seven or eight per grade would attend schools in the area.
The younger ones, she said, would attend daycare at the shelter.
For years, former Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. has expressed opposition to the plan to convert the facility. At last week’s meeting, he said, “There’s nothing for [homeless families] here.”
“Families come to us in a critical time in their lives. We do whatever we can to stabilize their lives,” Stone explained, responding to a complaint that those who live in the area already share a zip code with inmates of Rikers Island.
Stone estimated that 85 percent of the families living in the facility are headed by women only, with the remainder having both parents involved.
The proceedings were momentarily interrupted by an African-American man in the audience who repeatedly shouted to the crowd, “What are you afraid of? Are you afraid of seeing black people or Hispanics? What’s the crisis?” He was escorted out by the police.
Capt. John Travaglia of the 114th Precinct reported that between Jan. 1 of this year and last Wednesday, the precinct has taken eight complaint reports at the location, compared to the three complaints reported in 2013.
According to Poveromo, Ushi Shafrin, the property’s manager and son of the owner, did not respond to UCCA’s invitation to appear before the community.
“No surprise to those of us who’ve had dealings with him and his father in the past,” she said.
Stone indicated that Shafrin’s family is footing the bill for the renovations to the facility.
Nick Caniglia, an area resident, suggested, “This will be the end of the neighborhood. What do we have to do to stop this?”
As the meeting entered its third hour, Poveromo announced that an estimated 100 people were in the outer lobby, unable to gain admission to the already packed auditorium.
She said another meeting would be scheduled to allow all concerned to air their views.