For months, residents of Elmhurst and Glendale have boisterously expressed their fear and frustration over the Department of Homeless Services’ decision to house more than 100 homeless families in each neighborhood.
Alleged crime spikes, the devaluing of real estate and the indecency of “warehousing” the city’s less fortunate have been the main talking points of those opposed to the plans.
Now, overcrowding in the most congested school district in the five boroughs has taken center stage.
More than 150 people showed up to a special Community Education Council District 24 meeting last Wednesday, Aug. 6, at PS/IS 128 in Middle Village to ask questions and shout demands of city representatives on hand to address the issue of overcrowding.
CEC 24 President Nick Comaianni started the nearly two-hour discussion by criticizing the city for not surveying the area’s overcrowding situation before transforming the Pan American Hotel into a homeless shelter in June and putting forth plans for a 125-family residence in Glendale.
“I think it’s irresponsible for city agencies to try to put any type of homeless shelter in District 24,” Comaianni said. “It’s very selfish to put kids in a shelter where you can’t house them in a school.”
Margaret Rodgers, the executive director of Queens enrollment for the Department of Education, said counselors began interviewing the approximately 180 families at the Pan American Hotel shelter last week to discuss their options with them.
With the first day of school in the city just weeks away, the shelter’s prospective students have the option of either returning to their previous school, regardless of where in the city it is located, or attending schools in Elmhurst such as PS/IS 102.
Rodgers said she expects a number of children to return to their “school of origin,” while the remaining kids will attend school in Elmhurst, to the chagrin of the attendees.
“Some of them will opt to stay, but they do have the option to transfer and some of them will take it,” Rodgers said. “We have to treat these children like we would treat any other child who is coming to us, looking for a place to go to school. We have to see where they live and we would have to find them a seat, either in the school closest or if that school is capped, a school a little farther away.”
Maspeth resident Charlie Vavruska, the first resident to speak at the meeting, captivated the crowd with an emotional plea for a moratorium on homeless shelters throughout the city before leading those in attendance in call-and-response cries and receiving a rousing applause.
“I’m not saying not in my backyard, not in anyone’s backyard,” Vavruska said. “Do we, as parents in District 24, the most overcrowded district in the city, want more children from all over the city in our schools? No!”
To help alleviate overcrowding, Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Glendale) and School Construction Authority external affairs director Mary Leas discussed the possibility of building a high school on the site of the proposed Glendale shelter and the surrounding properties.
According to Leas, the SCA would only move forward with the idea of a school there if it was able to acquire the shelter site and the plot of land occupied by the former deli manufacturing business Hansel ’n Gretel.
Buying out the Independent Chemical Co. would also be a requirement.
According to Leas, the SCA sent a survey team to the proposed shelter site two years ago, but the presence of the chemical company next door rendered the site unfeasible for a school.
When the SCA got wind of Hansel ’n Gretel and Independent Chemical Co.’s intent to sell their properties, Leas said a school suddenly became a possibility.
The agency’s efforts went so far as to perform an environmental assessment on the Hansel ’n Gretel site, but the SCA has not been allowed on the other two properties, according to Leas.
“I think you deserve to know where we are because I know this is a very important issue in the community,” Leas said. “But I can tell you that if we can’t have all three pieces of property, it’s not going to work.”
Crowley brought up the potential of using eminent domain to acquire the plots in an effort to not let nine acres of property slip through the city’s fingers.
“We have funding to build new schools, but we haven’t found any new sites,” Crowley said. “This opportunity at Cooper Avenue, you can have nine acres. I don’t know where in Queens you can get a space that size that’s available.”
After fielding a question from the crowd about eminent domain, Leas cautioned that it’s not in the forefront of the SCA’s mind at this time.
“I can tell you it’s very premature to talk about eminent domain,” she said. “That’s a long process, as it should be.”