A crowd of about 1,000 concerned area residents brought a stretch of the service road of Queens Boulevard to a standstill on Tuesday evening while staging a protest against the opening of a homeless shelter in the now-shuttered Pan American Hotel in Elmhurst.
The redesignation by the Department of Homeless Services on June 6 caught elected officials, community board members and the public at large off guard.
The swiftness and, according to some, the underhandedness of the move seemed to anger many at the rally as much as the actual conversion.
Councilman Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights), with the help of a translator, addressed the largely Asian crowd.
“I did not receive even a fax from the Department of Homeless Services,” he said of the lack of notice about the shelter. “The question is, ‘Are there any social services being provided?’ I don’t think so. What will be the impact on our schools? That also remains a concern.”
Dromm indicated that the shelter would also have “a tremendous impact” on Elmhurst Hospital, already overcrowded.
“This is a community in need,” he said. “It’s going to have a detrimental effect on our community. Our objective today is to let the New York City officials know we don’t want this type of negative impact in our community.”
He indicated that 41 families have already been moved into the new facility.
State Sen. Toby Stavisky (D-Flushing) issued a statement read by a representative. In part, it stated, “As of today, the Department of Homeless Services still has been unable to provide my office with adequate information regarding the use of the Pan Am Hotel as a homeless shelter. The lack of information from DHS is doing a great disservice both to the community and the Pan Am’s potential new residents. The residents of Elmhurst deserve answers and they deserve them now.”
Protesters began to gather long before the 6 p.m. scheduled start time, swelling to a crowd whose size was estimated by NYPD Deputy Inspector Ronald Leyson, commanding officer of the 110th Precinct, at 1,000. Most in attendance were against the conversion and needed little encouragement to join in on the chant, “No more shelters!”
Another shelter, the Metro Family Residence, is one block away from the Pan Am.
Roe Daraio, president of COMET, the Communities of Maspeth & Elmhurst Together civic group, said, “If we don’t step up to the plate now and voice our concern, we become part of the problem and not the solution.”
While calling upon the city to “give people a permanent home,” she suggested officials should not “target communities with already-overburdened services.”
Many of the residents in attendance appeared to greet the opening of the shelter with a combination of compassion and disdain.
Ellen Kang, a member of COMET, acknowledged that “Homeless people are also New York City residents,” but she asked, “Why put a shelter here with young children on the Boulevard of Death?” — the moniker for Queens Boulevard, scene of many fatalities over the years. “We’re going to get even more traffic.” And she wanted to know, “Why did we find out so late?”
She was hopeful that “they’ll find another place as a homeless shelter. If they can’t, we have no choice. It will probably not be easy.”
Laraine Donohue, who has lived two blocks away from the Pan Am for 69 years, said, “I object to my taxpayer’s money going to something like this. These people are being shoveled from pillar to post. They don’t get a chance to educate themselves, to educate their children. If they could it would put them on the road to becoming part of the community.”
But, Donohue added, “They don’t belong in a residential community like this.”
It was a sentiment oft repeated.
For 44 years, Richard Payne has owned a home five blocks from the site, and he is not pleased with the latest development.
“I was happy when it was a hotel,” Payne said, “but not now. It’s going to increase crime. The schools are already overcrowded. I would like to see them someplace else, not here.”
Sang Zheng, who lives two blocks away, carried a sign which, in translation, read, “We don’t want to live in fear. We don’t want our neighborhood to have a lot of strangers.”
Laura Correa, who attended the rally with her husband and a friend, owns a home seven blocks from the new shelter.
“This will be the fourth facility of social services” in the area, she said. “We’ve seen an increase in crime, in vagrants hanging around the streets. They need to find an alternate location. We’ve done enough for the city. They can’t be doing these underhanded things.”
She was not optimistic about the far-reaching effects of the protest, saying, “It kind of feels like it may fall on deaf ears already.”
Correa’s friend, Wilfredo Martinez, simply wanted to know, “Why Elmhurst? Why not Park Avenue in Manhattan?”
Cecilia Gullas, president of the Filipino Association of Elmhurst, a community activist group, called to task DHS Assistant Commissioner Lisa Black, who insisted at a May 22 public hearing that the Pan Am would never be used as homeless housing.
“They’re telling us a lie,” Gullas said. “They bus in the homeless at night through the back entrance so nobody can see them. They’re doing it underhandedly.”
John Bolton, 60, who admitted to being homeless during his late teen years, frequently living on the street or on friends’ porches, was more sympathetic than most.
Now renting an apartment across from nearby Elmhurst Hospital, he said, “A lot of people are angry. They say, ‘Take care of the homeless, but not in my neighborhood.’ Where are you going to put them, on an island away from people?
“Most of the people here (in the shelter) are families. What do you tell those kids who don’t have a place to live?”
Pointing across the street, he added, “All these new buildings are for condos and high rentals. It gives the idea that the neighborhood is up and coming. We’ll see how many remain empty. The average person in this neighborhood probably couldn’t afford to live there.”
At one point, when the crowd threatened to become unruly despite a heavy police presence, Dromm told them, “Let’s act civil and let’s have a discussion on how we can work together.”
He indicated plans for a town hall meeting to address the issue, promising, “We will continue to fight.”