The parents of students at PS 124 are done being angry. They’re far too scared and too cynical for the emotion. Having spent the last 19 months trying to get answers to questions no one seems to have answers for, they are now left to vent in frustration, lock up their children and go so far as to threaten to take them out of school entirely.
The South Ozone Park school is now entering is third school year educating students two blocks west of the Skyway men’s homeless shelter on South Conduit Avenue. Since the shelter switched, literally overnight, from a family shelter to an all-men’s shelter in February 2011, parents and staff at the school have spent day after day, week after week, month after month finding ways to protect the roughly 1,200 students in the school from dangers that could be lurking in the shelter.
Their worst fears were realized in July when the Queens Chronicle reported that roughly two dozen registered sex offenders were living in the shelter at 132-30 South Conduit Ave. Now, a number of parents say sinister looking men from the shelter have mixed in with their community, gawking at them as they pass, and generally making them feel uncomfortable.
“I don’t want to come to this side of the Belt Parkway,” said one resident who lives on 128th Street and says she sees some of the men from the shelter at the bus stop across the street from the school in the morning.
Feeling as if their 2011 worries were justified and wanting more answers, the PTA and Councilman Ruben Wills (D-South Jamaica) held a town hall meeting at PS 124 on Tuesday evening where representatives from the Department of Homeless Services, BASICS — the company that runs the Skyway shelter — and Deputy Inspector Thomas Pascale, the commanding officer of the 106th Precinct,fielded questions from more than a dozen parents and community members.
But even at the meeting, anger continued to fester over the process in which the shelter opened. Until 2011, it was a family shelter and homeless children who went to PS 124 lived there until they were moved during February recess — mid-school year.
“This decision was rammed down our throats without any input from the neighborhood,” said Assunta Soldano, the PTA treasurer at PS 124, at Tuesday’s meeting. “I don’t begrudge the male shelter and men who are down on their luck. There are many families here who are one paycheck away from living on the streets. But our children cannot feel safe in the streets.”
Douglas James, deputy commissioner for adult services at the Department of Homeless Services, said no one has legal authority to track the men from the shelter, even those on the registered sex offender list, because they had already served the time for the crime they committed and were free men.
“They have a right to be outside,” he said. “We want them to be productive members of the community.”
The shelter has between five and seven security guards on site, depending on the time, and the officers do a sweep of the neighborhood on a regular basis within a mile radius, to make sure no men from the shelter are hanging around. Sixty percent of the men at the shelter work or are part of work training programs, BASICS said, and those who work or are looking for work are given van service to the subway so they do not need to walk through the neighborhood. BASICS also said it sends security guards to the school three times a day, although at least two members of the school staff said that was not the case.
But parents say despite all that, the men are still causing problems.
“They’re sizing up the mothers with their eyes,” Soldano said.
Lisa Black, director for government relations at DHS, said the agency does not know if a man entering a shelter is a sex offender or not until after he is moved in.
But many parents, as well as Community Board 10 Chairwoman Betty Braton, wanted to know why so many sex offenders lived there. Black said that was not a decision on her agency’s part. She flatly denied the agency decided to move the men’s shelter to the site because other neighborhoods did not want it.
Wills said he hopes to find some solution to the problem as quickly as possible and before anyone gets hurt.
“The city’s mandate is to house the homeless,” he said. “And the city’s mandate is to also to take care of its own, especially seniors and children. I didn’t get the memo about when those things became mutually exclusive.”