In a move that shocked community board members and an elected official, the Pan American Hotel in Elmhurst was converted into a homeless shelter by the Department of Homeless Services last Friday despite denials of the scenario being a possibility just two weeks ago.
At a May 22 public hearing over a proposed 125-family shelter in Glendale, DHS Assistant Commissioner Lisa Black insisted the 216-room Pan American Hotel at 79-00 Queens Blvd. would never be used as homeless housing.
“The law in the City of New York requires all families with children to be sheltered in a facility that requires both a kitchen and a bathroom,” Black told around 200 area residents in response to a question. “The hotel that was presented to us is just that, a hotel. It does not have kitchens, it does not have bathrooms. The answer is that site, as is, is not suitable for families with children.”
But the agency had changed its tune by Friday, as it shuttled 36 homeless families into the structure, which had closed in January but was recently planning to reopen as a hotel-hostel hybrid, according to Community Board 4 District Manager Christian Cassagnol.
At Tuesday night’s meeting of the board, Cassagnol announced the hotel’s redesignation as a shelter, which he said will be operated by Samaritan Village, to the sound of gasps from board members.
He said the board received a letter from Samaritan Village, dated June 6, that called for a meeting with CB 4 Chairman Louis Walker and Cassagnol within the next 30 days to discuss the plans for the hotel, but a DHS letter dated June 10 was more urgent.
“At the time, it sounded like they were willing to work with us,” Cassagnol told the board, “and today, we received a letter, and the final sentence is ‘DHS will occupy the site immediately.’”
With board members grumbling about the news, Cassagnol expressed his disappointment with the swift move but said he is very much still in the dark over how the shelter will be operated.
“I have the feeling it was rammed down our throats,” he said.
A source with knowledge of the decision said the overwhelming community opposition to the proposed Glendale shelter rendered the contentious plan unfeasible, forcing DHS to search for another location, such as the Pan Am building.
While Cassagnol said he was unsure of the details regarding how the shelter would operate, another source with knowledge of the situation said the shelter is a temporary one and the decision to use the hotel was made after the May 22 hearing over the Glendale proposal.
The source also said DHS will provide three meals a day to the families residing at the shelter and that no public hearing is required before a shelter is opened.
Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) expressed his anger over not being informed of the plan in a written statement, read aloud to CB 4 by spokesman Michael Mallon.
“I am upset that I was only informed that 36 homeless families would be given shelter at the Pan Am hotel as it was actually happening around 4:45 p.m. last Friday night,” Dromm said. “My office and our community were given no advance notice.”
It was not immediately clear if DHS would fill all 216 rooms at the hotel with needy families.
Area civic group COMET, Communities of Maspeth and Elmhurst Together, has organized a protest outside the hotel at 6 p.m. on June 17. Multiple CB 4 members said they planned to attend.
The Pan American Hotel sits just one block away from another homeless shelter, the Metro Family Residence.
Screen shots posted online in March from the hotel’s website, which has since been deleted, showed renovated rooms and new bedding. DNAInfo also reported last week that guests would be able to make reservations starting next month with room rates as low as $35.
However, when contacted by the Chronicle, a hotel employee said rooms could not be booked “until management comes.”
Cassagnol said he had a similar experience when he repeatedly called the building over the last week.
He was unable to get in contact with management even when he posed as an official from various city agencies.
“For the last week or so, I’ve been contacting the staff to talk to a manager on duty and there has never been a manager on duty,” he said. “I even tried changing my title. I said I worked for City of New York or the Mayor’s Office.”
Calls for comment made to Samaritan Village and the Mayor’s Office were not returned by press time, but DHS released a statement Wednesday citing the sizable rise in the number of homeless families in the city.
“As the number of families with children residing in temporary, emergency shelter grows, we must consider all available options to address our capacity needs and meet our legally mandated right to shelter,” the agency said. “In the short term, DHS is using the Queens Boulevard facility to provide essential shelter and supportive services to families with children.”
The Pan American Hotel joins the proposed homeless shelter at 78-16 Cooper Ave. in Glendale as lightning rods for community anger and controversy.
The proposal to house 125 families at the site of a former factory has drawn criticism from hundreds of residents and a united Community Board 5, specifically citing the possible contamination of the site and the impact on infrastructure the sudden influx of people.
Like Glendale, Elmhurst is included in School District 24, one of the most overcrowded in the city.