Are they mothers and fathers searching for a bed for their children to sleep in at night or dangerous derelicts who will bring chaos and disorder to Elmhurst?
On Tuesday night, the answer differed depending on which side of Goldsmith Street you were standing on.
Over 900 rambunctious anti-Pan American homeless shelter protesters and around two dozen of the shelter’s occupants took part in evening-long dueling rallies across the street from each other on Monday outside of the Elks Lodge at 82-20 Queens Blvd.
Inside the building, officials from the Department of Homeless Services and Samaritan Village felt the wrath of angry residents and elected officials at a 7 p.m. meeting to discuss the hotel’s conversion, which was done without any community notice from DHS or Samaritan Village, which operates it, on June 6.
“They’re across the street laughing. Everyone is over there holding signs and they’re laughing,” Pan Am resident Lale West, 33, said. “They might only be out here for an hour but this is our lives we’re talking about.”
A sizable gathering of a few hundred people, the vast majority of whom were of Asian descent, had already assembled outside the Goldsmith Street entrance of the Elks Lodge by 6:30 p.m., around the time state Senate candidate S.J. Jung addressed the roaring, sign-waving crowd.
Inside, Jung, who is challenging state Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Flushing) in a Democratic primary in September, criticized DHS’s alleged lack of fair shelter distribution throughout the city.
“The location of the Pan Am hotel is nowhere near the suitable criteria for a homeless shelter. We already have other shelters in the area, so why is our community being disproportionately asked to bear the burden?” Jung said. “The city should not dump homeless shelters on immigrant communities, communities of color or low-income families. They should distribute centers in a fair manner.”
Two hours later, the rallies, both actively involving numerous young children, began chanting back and forth at one another as the night fell.
Nearly 25 shelter occupants gathered across the building’s Goldsmith Street entrance, which had been closed to vehicular traffic by police earlier in the evening, and began screaming back at the much larger crowd, in the midst of chanting “Get a job” and “Shame on you” among other phrases.
There were also reports of anti-shelter protesters using racial slurs to describe some of Pan Am’s residents.
“You’re teaching your kids hate at a young age and then you wonder what’s wrong with society,” West, accompanied by her young son, Govin, and toddler daughter, Faith, said. “This is why I want my son here, because I want him to see this type of ignorance.”
Around 9 p.m., many of the shelter’s residents, including 20-year-old Brittane Steinhauer who lives in the Pan Am building with her mother and infant daughter, left the area together, but not before demanding fair treatment from those opposed to the plan.
“It’s not like these people are bums living in a subway station. These are mothers who need places for their children to sleep at night,” Steinhauer said. “This isn’t fair at all. They are saying these things because we’re mostly black or Latino.”
Fellow shelter occupant Melissa Glaum, 25, criticized the opposing protesters for being misinformed.
“They’re telling me to get a job. Well, I have a job,” Glaum said. “What they’re doing is so ignorant.”
This is the second protest regarding the Pan Am shelter in as many weeks, as nearly 1,000 people picketed outside the former hotel on June 17.
The civil unrest stems from the former hotel’s stealthy conversion into a homeless shelter a mere two weeks after Lisa Black, an assistant DHS commissioner, said at a public hearing regarding another proposed 125-family shelter in Glendale that such a transformation would never happen.
One woman named Cecilia even walked around Tuesday’s protest banging a pot with a spoon with a sign reading “Lisa Black, stop lying to us.”
Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) attended Tuesday’s meeting and he applauded the Elmhurst community for coming out in droves to support the cause, but called the negative chanting “horrible” and “incendiary.”
“The very first thing I asked for at the first protest was respect for the families that are currently housed in there,” Dromm said. “They’re not to blame for the way DHS and Samaritan Village have handled this situation.”
A number of shelter residents also let loose their fair share of divisive comments, with a select few telling those in the larger crowd to “go back to your country and leave us alone.”
At the height of the protests, 110th Precinct Deputy Inspector Ron Leyson, the commanding officer, said two sergeants and 18 police officers had been assigned to keep the peace.
A police helicopter also was seen hovering overhead around 9 p.m.
According to Leyson, there were no violent or criminal incidents at the protests.
Unlike the June 17 protest, a partial closure of Queens Boulevard was not required.
Inside the Elks Lodge, the mood was not as frenetic, but those opposing the shelter made their opinions heard loud and clear.
Samaritan Village Executive Vice President Doug Apple and Black, the DHS Assistant Commissioner of Government and Human Relations, along with state Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Flushing), state Assemblyman Francisco Moya (D-Jackson Heights) and Dromm listened to dozens of residents criticize the city for not allowing a public discourse before a decision to move homeless families into the neighborhood.
“We will not be bulldozed and stand idly by on the sidelines,” one resident said. “Does anyone care to look at the larger picture?”
According to Steinhauer, who also vehemently denied some protesters’ claims that shelter residents actively loitered in the area, the larger picture is clear to her.
“If this was an Asian shelter, they wouldn’t say anything,” she said. “They’re racist.”