The screaming and sign-waving regarding the Pan American Hotel’s transformation last month into a homeless shelter wasn’t just limited to the sidewalks along Goldsmith Street in Elmhurst on Monday night.
Inside the Elks Lodge, the roars of the angry crowd outside were drowned out by residents and elected officials ripping the city for housing even more homeless families in their community.
At a public meeting hosted by Community Board 4, officials from the Department of Homeless Services and shelter operator Samaritan Village were joined by state Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Flushing), Assemblyman Francisco Moya (D-Jackson Heights) and Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) to discuss last month’s stealthy conversion of the Pan Am without providing advance notice.
While the meeting was more civil than the dueling protests between the anti-shelter contingent and two dozen shelter residents inches from the building’s entrance, calm discussion was sometimes hard to come by.
Samaritan Village Executive Vice President Doug Apple kicked off the talk by acknowledging the shelter opened without notice and describing ways the community can keep abreast of activities going on there.
“I recognize what happened here, that we did move in without notice. We understand the concerns that raises and we’re here to address that,” Apple said, sparking shouts and shrieks from the approximately 100 audience members. “We will have a community advisory board, a board that will meet regularly with issues the community may have about the program. We will have a hotline that people can call 24/7 if there’s any issues or concerns they see.
“We will be accessible and available to you,” Apple continued. “That is our commitment.”
DHS First Deputy Commissioner Lorraine Stephens told the approximately 100 audience members, a vast majority of whom expressed anti-shelter sentiments, that the decision to use the Pan American hotel as a shelter was made June 6, the day 36 homeless families first moved in.
“On June 6, we had 100 people at the intake center at 8 a.m. that needed shelter. At that time, we only had a capacity of 30 beds in our system,” Stephens said. “This building was brought to our attention and we moved expeditiously to see if it was able to be used as a shelter.”
Stephens’ reasoning didn’t fly with those in attendance, as numerous residents held up signs and hammered Apple, Stephens and Lisa Black, a DHS assistant commissioner, on the lack of community notification.
Community Education Council District 24 member Bill Kregler even accused the city of blatantly lying to Elmhurst residents.
“The big story is you were misled, you were lied to by public officials. Let them give you all the details, let them try to make you feel bad for not being soft and kind. The big picture here is people lied,” Kregler said. “We need to subpoena records and take sworn testimony, and after all that’s done, we need to have some pink slips handed out.”
A handful of other angry residents spoke of their sightings of shelter residents allegedly lurking throughout the area at dusk.
Others said they’ve seen homeless couples eating at the Georgia Diner down the street from the Pan American building, with audience members screaming out, “I can’t even afford to go there!”
On the contrary, Astoria resident Odette Lupis was the only one who spoke positively of the shelter and its residents.
She discussed how her own medical issues have led her to worry about herself soon becoming homeless and referenced how disasters such as Hurricane Sandy and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks left numerous successful citizens without homes.
“Not everybody who happens to become homeless is like that,” Lupis said. “Some of them look like you. Instead of protesting, start thinking about how you can help.”
Before she could finish her sentence, she was loudly booed and jeered by many audience members, with one man screaming “How much did they pay you to say that?” and another woman calling her statement “disgraceful.”
Stavisky also experienced some of the same jeering when she expressed her wish to see increased police patrols in the area around the homeless shelter, despite some residents worrying over a possible increase in crime.
She also commended Samaritan Village’s proposed community advisory board and hotline.
Moya received the biggest applause of any elected official when he affirmed his belief the shelter should be closed.
“We have a government agency like DHS that doesn’t take into consideration the input of a high immigrant community because they think its OK for us to accept whatever gets done,” Moya said. “We’re going to fight to make sure that doesn’t happen.
“We have to stand united and work together,” he continued. “If this means we have to chain ourselves in front of that place, let’s do it!”
Moya also expressed his sympathy for the plight of those in the shelter, but when one woman yelled “Kick them all out” during his speech, Moya answered by saying “I love your spunk. We need more of that.”