While elected officials and residents are still reeling over the Department of Homeless Services’ unexpected conversion of the Pan American Hotel in Elmhurst into a homeless shelter last month, the agency is at it again.
This time, the Westway Motor Inn on Astoria Boulevard has been converted into a high-capacity homeless shelter without, some contend, proper notice to those most impacted by the move.
Last week, Congressman Joseph Crowley (D-Bronx, Queens), Councilman Costa Constantinides (D-Astoria), state Senator Jose Peralta (D-Queens) and Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas (D-Astoria) jointly wrote a letter to the department’s commissioner, Gilbert Taylor, expressing concern over the inn’s unsuitability as a shelter.
“We are deeply troubled by this decision and find it disturbing that neither elected officials nor community leaders were informed or consulted beforehand,” the letter reads. “While we appreciate that DHS is legally required to provide shelter for the homeless, the agency’s failure to provide any notification to the people currently living in the area who are impacted by its implementation is unacceptable.”
The elected officials argue population growth within the community already stretches the capacity of schools and hospitals. They worry the addition of more than 100 homeless families will have a significant effect on local services.
The motel, located at 71-11 Astoria Blvd. in East Elmhurst, has been the center of controversy before. Reports as far back as February 2012 show plans called for the site — already being used for overnight housing of the homeless — to be converted to a full-time shelter.
Following community dissent, the plans were shelved.
Comptroller Scott Stringer, who also wrote a letter to Taylor, said the lack of communication may backfire when it comes to community support.
“Time and time again, I have seen communities that were traditionally welcoming of shelter facilities and supportive of housing react negatively to a rushed DHS placement due to a failure to consider either legitimate potential neighborhood impacts or the health of the families the residences are intended to support,” Stringer wrote to Taylor.
Despite anger from elected officials and a vehement backlash from the Elmhurst community regarding the Pan American, East Elmhurst residents have mixed feelings toward the new shelter.
“This is a controversial issue, to say the least,” a 61-year-old resident, who wishes to remain anonymous, said. “But with that said, don’t we have a societal responsibility to provide for the basic needs of the less fortunate in circumstances?”
Still, she added, the Westway Motor Inn is not a safe place for the shelter to be housed.
“There are no supermarkets, laundromats or playgrounds for the children,” she said, noting the area is known for “high-speed traffic all day and night.”
In support of the proposal is Queens resident Anthony Vasser, 45, who said, “I’m all for it with one proviso — make it a homeless shelter for women and children, no single men, who probably can get by on their own.
“Children should not be living in shelters, but if they have to, they should be living with their entire family, instead of being split up. Shelters are by no means places of stability, but they could be the start of a road which leads to such later on.”
An emergency town hall meeting had been scheduled for July 23 at the Museum of the Moving Image to discuss the Westway situation.