After two previous rallies against the Pan American Hotel’s transformation into a homeless shelter turned vitriolic, the Department of Homeless Services shuttled dozens of families to a movie theater in an attempt to shield them from Tuesday’s protest outside the building.
While scores of children enjoyed seeing “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” around 550 people packed the sidewalk in front of the shelter at 79-00 Queens Blvd. in Elmhurst to, once again, let their opposition to the residence be heard.
Some people, such as Glendale Civic Association President Kathy Masi, called shuttling kids to the movies a “pitiful” public relations stunt on the group’s Facebook page, while others, such as DHS spokesman Christopher Miller, said the trip would be a “nice diversion from the hate.”
Camille Rivera, the department’s deputy commissioner for communications, said DHS had been planning some sort of activity for families to enjoy for a while, and Tuesday’s protest gave them the perfect opportunity to schedule the theater trip.
“We have heard they have been feeling pretty bad about what has been going on around the protests,” Rivera said. “I think [DHS Commissioner Gilbert Taylor] didn’t feel we wanted to have families with children in this facility while they were being yelled and screamed at.”
Taylor himself called for patience from the community and described the protests as “unfortunate” at a Tuesday press conference inside the Pan American building.
While waiting to board one of the two buses in the rear parking lot of the building, one young girl noticed the flock of reporters and lamented the ongoing saga playing out in the media, saying “More pictures? I don’t want to do this anymore.”
Not all of the 181 families went on the DHS sponsored trip, however. Some stayed behind and watched the protest, organized by the Communities of Maspeth and Elmhurst Together civic group, from their windows later that night.
Mostly absent from the demonstrators’ rhetoric were chants of “Shame on you” and “Get a job” that dominated the two previous rallies in recent weeks.
Instead, many of the protest’s speakers, such as S.J. Jung, a Democratic candidate for state Senate, were careful to direct their criticism at DHS and not the families residing in the shelter.
“Let us be absolutely clear and be very careful not to direct our misguided anger towards the homeless. They are the most vulnerable among us,” Jung said. “No one can deny we need more homeless shelters in the city. We must direct our outrage towards such a flawed process.”
According to Masi, the shuttling of children to the movies was just an attempt to whitewash its flaws.
“This is clearly a public relations stunt to make it appear that DHS has compassion. Sorry, not buying,” she said on Facebook. “Shame on DHS for this blatant display. Again, using the homeless to gather support for their agenda.”
Many of the protesters held signs calling for fairness when it comes to where DHS places shelters, a common theme among the other two rallies as well. However, only nine percent of the city’s shelters, a total of 21 homeless residences, are in Queens, the second lowest total in the five boroughs, according to a Daily News report.
Only Staten Island has fewer shelters, just two, while the Bronx has 73, about 30 percent of the city’s total.