For weeks, community leaders opposed to a new homeless shelter in Elmhurst and plans for another in Glendale have been urging residents to call city Comptroller Scott Stringer to make their opinions known.
Well, it’s working.
In a July 17 letter addressed to Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Gilbert Taylor, Stringer sharply criticized the DHS for its “failing” policies of preventing homelessness, a lack of transparency and for not properly informing neighborhood residents of impending homeless shelters.
“Time and time again, I have seen communities that were traditionally welcoming of shelter facilities and supportive of housing react negatively to a rushed DHS placement due to a failure to consider either legitimate potential neighborhood impacts or the health of the families the residences are intended to support,” Stringer wrote. “DHS must begin to immediately repair its relationships with local communities by creating a robust consultative process with community stakeholders for all of its current planned sites and those proposed in the future.”
When asked if the letter is in direct response to community opposition to the sudden transformation of the Pan American Hotel at 78-00 Queens Blvd. in Elmhurst into a homeless shelter and a proposed 125-family residence at 78-16 Cooper Ave. in Glendale, a spokesman for Stringer said, “The letter speaks for itself.”
In an impromptu press conference inside the Pan American building Tuesday, Taylor defended his department’s emergency shelter practice and welcomed feedback from Stringer, no matter how negative it is.
“We are, at this time, facing an emergency in terms of family shelters,” Taylor said. “It’s our legal mandate to provide shelter as well as our moral mandate and we’re happy to have this site available to the families in need.
“The Comptroller has been a very good partner with DHS in this effort,” he continued. “In being a good partner, hearing feedback from him, the community and the elected it’s part of our partnership. Being responsive to that feedback is also something that we’re committed to doing.”
Regarding the multiple protests attended by hundreds of incensed Elmhurst residents over the shelter, including one later that night attended by 550 people, Taylor called the demonstrations “unfortunate” and asked for patience from the community.
“I think it’s necessary for us to have some patience. I would appreciate the patience of the Elmhurst residents,” Taylor said. “We are making every effort at this point in time to make sure that those who live in the community know who we are and why we are here.”
Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) applauded Stringer’s letter and added that DHS agreed, in a meeting Tuesday with elected officials and the Comptroller’s office, to notify elected officials of incoming homeless shelters one week in advance.
“I thought his letter was very appropriate,” Dromm said. “And I’m grateful to him for it.”
Regarding the proposed 125-family shelter in Glendale, specifically the environmental assessment of the site, DHS spokesman Christopher Miller said the department “stands by” the determination of renowned engineering firm AECOM that the plot of land is not contaminated, despite numerous residents and elected officials claiming the results were purposely skewed.
“They did 21 borings across that site to look at whether there was anything in the soil that could be kicked up, and they all came back fine,” Miller said. “We feel like it was thorough and very well done.”
In East Elmhurst, the Westway Motor Inn began housing families on July 9, becoming the third facility to open in Queens in the last seven weeks, in addition to the Pan American Hotel and a facility in the Rockaways.
In a letter to Taylor dated July 14 and signed by Rep. Joe Crowley (D-Bronx, Queens), state Sen. Jose Peralta (D-Queens), Councilman Costa Constantinides (D-Astoria) and Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas (D-Astoria) cricitized DHS for a lack of proper advanced warning.
“While we appreciate that DHS is legally required to provide shelter to the homeless,” the letter reads, “the agency’s failure to provide any notification to the people currently living in the area who are impacted by its implementation is unacceptable.