After three caustic protests rocked Elmhurst upon converting the Pan American Hotel into a homeless shelter in June, some wanted to show shelter families a brighter side of the neighborhood.
Nearly 300 volunteers and shelter residents attended a barbecue last Saturday afternoon at the New Life Fellowship Church at 82-10 Queens Blvd.
Local volunteers — many of whom are members of The Reformed Church of Newtown a few blocks away — urged shelter families to relax and connect with the community.
There was a face-painting station, a cotton candy machine, water balloon activities, and balloon animals. Children also played sack toss, lobbing mini beanbags into the mouths of colorful animals.
Lester Lin, an Elmhurst resident who organized the event, was compelled to act when he saw the first protest on television, which was June 17 and attracted a crowd of nearly 1,000.
“I imagined in my head that there are children behind those curtains,” Lin said.
Using his expertise in working at a title insurance firm, he looked at property values on recent contracts for units in the neighborhood and determined property values were not plunging as he’d heard.
He also met with members from local schools, the FDNY, and officials at the 110th Precinct to confirm if crime rates increased since the shelter’s opening. He found they did not.
After the second protest on June 30, Lin became involved in meetings with the Department of Homeless Services and Samaritan Village, the agency sponsoring the shelter.
Lin said the protests happened so quickly that he was eager to throw a positive event immediately.
Lin paid for many of the barbecue’s supplies himself and asked New Life Fellowship Church, which is close to the shelter, if he could throw the event in the parking lot.
He sent out a press release late Friday afternoon, fearing too much notice would attract negative protestors not well informed of the issue.
Lin also mentioned the complications that arose when he, an Asian American, often sat with shelter residents. “It sucks because when they see me, they say, ‘Oh, you must be an Asian protestor,’” he said.
“The biggest concern is that this is all about race,” Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubrey (D-Corona) said. “You can’t avoid that discussion, but in the long run, anybody can lose their home. Hopefully some of the people who are all bent out of shape will pass by and realize that that’s what’s going on.”
According to Lin, there are currently 216 families living in the shelter.
Judy, 40, lived in the shelter since June 8 with her husband and two children upon being laid off.
“I feel a little threatened,” Judy said. “I know there’s some people who like to take advantage of the system, but the majority of us have gone through unfortunate things that lead us to this place.”
As she spoke, her son hurled water balloons at “human dart boards,” volunteers wearing plastic bags with painted targets; her daughter danced earlier. It was a welcome change from the “scary” protests, she said.
Judy connected with Jennifer Shaburnikova, Lin’s colleague and lifelong Elmhurst resident who also spoke to shelter residents after the second protest.
“I feel like people just don’t go outside of themselves to know who these people are,” Shaburnikova said of shelter protestors.
Another shelter resident, Jkwon, 18, said the protests were hard to take in.
“Some of their reasons [for not wanting us there] were understandable, but some were just absurd,” Jkwon said. He described upsetting shouts, such as, “We don’t want you here because we want to protect our children.”
“What exactly do you mean by ‘protect your children’?” Jkwon, a father himself of a toddler, asked. “We didn’t come over here to take over anybody’s community. We just came over here to make an honest living like everybody else and do what we have to do to better ourselves.”
While many shelter residents had similar concerns, one citizen, Tom, who is in his 30s and witnessed the protests, disagreed. He said the over-the-top anger and racist remarks reported by many media outlets were inaccurate and overblown. Most of the residents were upset over policy — not at the shelter families — and weren’t hurling slurs or insults. The media focused only on the negative outliers, he said.
Lin disagreed. “I was there, I heard it!” he said. During the third protest on July 22, he sat with families inside the shelter. “It was sad, the children were scared,” he said.
Lin stressed the healing power of taking a minute to understand each other.
“You never know, these people could be your next store owners or your next community representatives,” he said.
Daniel Baek, Lin’s colleague and a member of Community Board 11, is trying to set up a resume-building workshop for job-hunting shelter residents.
Lin said they are also working with the mayor’s office to approve a childcare program so parents can look for jobs.
“It’s what we want to see in our society, people working together, helping each other, recognizing that these are all human beings,” Aubrey said.