Over 50 South Ozone Park residents turned out for Community Board 10’s monthly meeting Thursday to protest a potential group home for disabled, homeless veterans at the former convent of St. Anthony of Padua Church on 127th Street.
The plan for the home was presented by Frank Amalfitano of the United Veterans Beacon House, an organization that has been negotiating with Catholic Charities to buy the property for over a year. The home would serve up to 35 homeless disabled veterans who served in recent wars, from World War II through the Iraq War.
The public hearing exposed strong opposition to the idea in a community that has been besieged with homeless shelters and group homes and is facing a rising crime rate for the second straight winter. Resident after resident spoke against the plan, prompting the board to draft a letter to both Catholic Charities and Beacon House outlining the community’s concerns.
The community board does not have the power to reject the proposal, but it may not have to. The negotiations between Catholic Charities and Beacon House have only reached the midpoint of the church’s lengthy approval process for selling land to the public, according to Father James Mueller of St. Anthony’s.
John Tynan, Director of Housing for Catholic Charities, submitted a letter to CB10, which indicated that the church was still reviewing internal options for the site. He wrote that the process “may take a few months” and that Beacon House should “feel free to seek alternative sites.”
The Long Island-based Beacon House received a federal grant to provide housing to homeless veterans in Queens after a government study indicated a shortage of facilities in the borough. The grant is for between $300,000 and $400,000.
The organization runs 15 similar homes in Queens, Brooklyn and on Long Island, serving 115 people ages 23 to 90. The other Queens location is in Rockaway Park, where there is a home for 17 people. Veterans must have been honorably discharged from the armed services and be determined by a VA hospital not to be a burden to the community to be eligible.
Beacon House serves veterans with a wide range of conditions, ranging from cancer to amputation to drug addiction. Residents have an 11 p.m. curfew during the week and a 1 a.m. curfew on the weekends. The home has a rotating, 24-hour staff. If a resident breaks any of the program’s rules, they are sent back to the VA hospital.
Many in the audience opposed the plan, including the South Ozone Park Civic Association West, which covers the area in which St. Anthony’s is located. Resident Emmanuel Crespo said he feared the clientele of the home. “Homeless is homeless whether you’re a veteran or not.”
Others worried that children would be in danger if they walked past the house because some of the residents were recovering drug addicts or suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. “Put it in someone else’s backyard,” one woman said.
Few community board members spoke about the plan, but Margaret Finnerty, president of the Richmond Hill South Civic Association, urged the neighborhood to support it. “Nobody knows when anyone will be in that situation. There’s a war going on. Let’s be a little sensitive,” she said. Finnerty was one of three board members to oppose the board’s motion to write the letter outlining community concerns.
Jimmy Rogers, director of housing for Beacon House and a veteran of the Marine Corps, said that more than 1,000 veterans had passed through the program during Beacon House’s 7 years of existence and there has never been an incident with one of the home’s residents and the community.
Amalfitano, a Vietnam veteran, started the Beacon House eight years ago after meeting a homeless veteran, who told him that the problem of veterans on the streets was endemic. “I said, ‘There can’t be homeless veterans in the United States of America, but he said, ‘Guess what, there are,’” Amalfitano recalled.
According to figures released in 2003 by the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, 23 percent of the nation’s homeless are veterans, as are 33 percent of all homeless men. In New York state, there were almost 45,000 homeless veterans and fewer than 400 beds for them.
Mary Joesten, who runs the Faith Mission Alcohol Crisis Center at 114-40 Van Wyck Expressway with her husband, noted that in 10 years the center had not elicited one complaint from the neighborhood. She was aghast at the community’s outright rejection of the proposal. “I can’t imagine a community that would be unwelcoming to veterans in the entire United States. The veterans should be allowed to live there,” she said.