Chinoso races around a small black track on his scooter making explosion sounds and pretending to save an imaginary world using his speed and heroic strength.
“Spiderman is cool because he’s part arachnid, but if I had to choose, I think I’d be Superman,” the 5-year-old said, cocking his head to and fro, considering his decision. “Yeah, I want to be super strong.”
Like most little boys, Chinoso is obsessed with superheroes and bugs, specifically spiders and rollie pollies. He’s careful to point out, though, that spiders are not insects.
He’s also scared to start kindergarten in the fall and wonders if he’ll be prepared or if the other students will know more than he does.
“I can write my name, but I can’t open certain food packages yet,” he said. “I can’t always open my milk and I heard in kindergarten they don’t help you with that.”
His concerns, however trivial in the context of life, are very much a part of the reality he and thousands of other kids live in.
The only difference between Chinoso and most other kids is: He goes to pre-K in a homeless shelter.
There is nothing extraordinary about the former hotel Saratoga Family Inn took over in the 1980s. In fact, it blends in with its surroundings and probably goes unnoticed by the hundreds of cars barreling down Rockaway Boulevard in Springfield Gardens.
The subtle appearance is intentional and, according to facility administrator, Michael Fahy, helps remove many of the stigmas people have about homeless families.
“Stigmas are in every part of life,” he said. “But we work to eliminate that by mixing outside children with children in the shelter. That integration promotes communication and takes away some of that stigma, hopefully.”
Lately, tensions are high between Queens communities and the Department of Homeless Services. As the borough has the lowest number of shelters — after Staten Island — DHS has begun buying more hotels and turning them into shelters, often without much notice to elected officials and residents.
In Elmhurst, residents of a new shelter at the old Pan American Hotel and community members recently held dueling rallies nearby, sometimes yelling racial slurs and offensive statements at one another.
Community members says they want to be properly notified and feel a shelter is inappropriate; the shelter residents say they aren’t being treated fairly.
More recently, similar tension has been building in East Elmhurst, where the Westway Motor Inn had been transformed into a permanent shelter without sufficient notification, according to electeds and residents.
But not every shelter is a nuisance, to the community. As said, it’s a matter of how the situation is approached.
“There’s definitely a misconception when people think of homeless shelters,” Fahy said. “They think mental illness or substance abuse, and while that can be part of it, if you properly regulate the shelter and have enough staff, you can find a balance. There’s a right way to do things, and a wrong way.”
In the shelter’s playground where Chinoso and his classmates play, it is almost impossible to tell the shelter kids apart from the “outside kids.”
Of course, not everything is perfect, but when dealing with a group of 4- and 5-year-olds, it is almost impossible to be perfect.
The children get cranky, have tantrums and argue over who gets to use the swings.
But there are other times when they just want to show off what they’ve learned.
For example, Prince, who barely speaks English — though he does understand it well — loves showing how old he is using his hands.
He’s 5 and loves going down the slide and getting high-fives.
Rihanna, a sassy 4-year-old, has no problem putting people in their place and letting her peers know exactly how she feels about giving up her spot on the swing set.
The more time spent with the little ones, not only does one struggle to figure out which kids are shelter kids, but it becomes less clear why it’s important.
“Just because someone is homeless, doesn’t mean they’re less than you are,” Fahy said. “If I’m having a bad day, I just go over to the education area and see the hope in those little kids’ eyes.”
Children in shelters have problems to deal with, but the kids of Saratoga Family Inn don’t seem to want to dwell on those problems when there’s fun to be had.
The integration the shelter promotes continues as the children get older, too. After they age out of the prekindergarten program, they can attend an afterschool program in the shelter.
In addition, the staff at Saratoga Family Inn try their best to keep the kids engaged and teach them that anything is possible, if they set their minds on it — much like any other kid is told.
Through a group called Kid Care, several men who work in banking donate their time and money to bring in dentists to talk about oral health and clothes. Most recently, the group hosted a basketball tournament between all of the shelters in the Homes for Homeless network — under which Saratoga Family Inn operates — and supplied them with custom sneakers.
The shelter has been facing leaner times lately, like many of the other shelters across the city. Saratoga Family Inn, the largest facility in the city with 255 units, is almost filled to capacity and, citywide, a majority of residents stay for a year or longer.
Despite the increasing homeless population, Fahy said he wants his staff to continue offering as much support to the residents as they can.
“One thing that’s big is making sure all of the staff think of everything as a customer service approach,” he said. “We do have rules here; if you didn’t have rules, there’d be chaos. Rules give the clients structure, but we like our staff to maintain that mentality.”
CORRECTION : The original story reports a majority of Saratoga Family Inn residents living in the shelter for a year or longer. The figure is actually the citywide average. We regret the error.