By Conor Greene
More than one hundred residents gathered on 58th Avenue on Saturday morning to protest the sudden opening of a homeless shelter in the middle of their quiet residential block that would provide temporary housing to 29 adults.
Residents of the Elmhurst neighborhood turned out in force to express their displeasure with the city for allowing this type of facility to open without any warning. Adding to their concerns is the fact that Queens Alliance, which is running the facility, has no history of operating these types of homes. There is also concern that 29 homeless individuals will be provided temporary shelter in close proximity to nearby schools.
“We’re here to protect what is most important to us – our children, our homes, our streets and our neighborhood... The decision was rammed down our throat without any feedback from our community,” said Linda Lam, who organized the rally with the local civic group Communities of Elmhurst and Maspeth Together (COMET). “Our children can no longer feel safe playing in the streets… To protect our children, our homes and not to let the homeless shelter destroy our neighborhood, we have to keep up the fight.”
While recognizing the need for homeless shelters in the city, Lam argued that the neighborhood, south of Queens Boulevard near the former St. John’s Hospital site, is already overburdened. “I know all communities should shoulder the burden of society’s problems that nobody wants it in their backyard; however, we have shouldered more than our fair share already,” she said, noting there is a group home located across the street.
Many of the residents were unaware of the facility until COMET held a meeting about it three weeks ago. While it is currently eligible to accept clients, none have been assigned there by the city Human Resources Administration as of Tuesday, according to Yolanda Martin-Garibaldi, vice president of Queens Alliance.
With no prior hearings or notification of the shelter, many expressed anger at elected officials ranging from Mayor Michael Bloomberg down to local City Councilwoman Melinda Katz (D-Forest Hills), who did not attend the meeting or rally but was represented by a staff member on Saturday. The only elected official to attend the rally was Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village), who represents the areas to the south of Elmhurst.
“We thank everyone for coming out today to express our anger at our mayor and our political representatives, who by their actions or omissions have shown that they do not have the best interests of our children, elders, wives and families,” said Jean-Claude Pierre, whose sister, brother-in-law and five nieces live three houses from the shelter. “Sadly I was wrong to think so highly of our elected officials. I now realize that we cannot simply rely on our mayor and political representatives.”
Residents packed the sidewalk and street in front of the shelter, located at 86-18 58th Avenue, while speakers vowed in English, Spanish and Chinese to continue the fight. Roe Daraio, president of COMET, urged the residents to “stick together” and monitor the facility to ensure Queens Alliance follows the proper health, safety and licensing guidelines, since the project is allowed as-of-right under the area’s zoning. “If we give them a lot of agida they might pick up and move somewhere else.”
Jeff Gottleib, representing state Senator Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach), told the residents that the senator will stand alongside them in this battle.
However, Vicky Morales, representing Katz, was booed loudly by the crowd due to the Councilwoman’s perceived lack of action on this issue. At the COMET meeting several weeks ago, a resident said she was told by a Katz staffer that the fight is a lost cause since the facility is allowed under the zoning. Morales told the crowd that she is looking into why the resident was given that answer, which she said is “not a usual response” from Katz’s office. “The councilmember is tired of as-of-right [projects]. We need to have community input,” said Morales.
Crowley told the crowd to continue fighting and said that “just because they have the right legally, it doesn’t mean it is right.”
Michael Cohen, who is running for the 29th District council seat being vacated by Katz, questioned the ability of Queens Alliance to properly run this type of facility, and bashed the city for giving the organization the okay to do so. “This doesn’t sound like sound social policy to me… The HRA should be ashamed it didn’t think this through rationally.”
A message left with the HRA press office on Tuesday was not returned. Martin-Garibaldi of Queens Alliance said in a brief interview that the bottom line is these individuals need a place to turn to for assistance.
“As a community person and somebody that works for the needy, my personal feeling is if we don’t help each other who’s going to do it?” she said. “Those are our people and our people need to go somewhere. I understand the fact that they don’t want the drugs and other stuff and I’m the first to say we don’t need that. It’s their community, they have a voice and they’re entitled to that,” she said of the protest.
Addressing concerns about Queens Alliance’s lack of track record, Martin-Garibaldi said the staff members are qualified from working with other organizations. “The corporation was formed a year ago. Every agency began somewhere and to create a track record you have to start somewhere.”
Still, Lam and others promised to continue protesting the facility until it is shut down. Petitions opposing the home are circulating the neighborhood, and voter registration forms were available at the rally to help the residents gain a political voice. “This is just the beginning of a long fight,” she said. “We need all of you until the shelter is closed.”