Thursday, July 2, 2009

Residents Upset Over Homeless Shelter


By Conor Greene

A building on 58th Avenue in Elmhurst has been converted into a temporary homeless shelter and is ready to accept clients, to the dismay of neighbors who were not informed about the project and say it’s not appropriate for the residential area.

A large group of angry residents packed into the basement of the Bethzatha Church on Monday night to learn about the plan and express their concerns over having the temporary shelter operate at 86-18 58th Avenue, in the middle of a quiet block.

The building would house up to 29 adults, according to Yolanda Martin-Garibaldi, vice president of The Queens Alliance, Inc. That group has entered into a ten-year lease for the building, which was owned by St. Vincent’s Catholic Medical Centers until it was sold in 2005 to a limited liability corporation. This is the first facility of this type to be run by the recently-formed Queens Alliance.

At Monday’s meeting, co-hosted by Community Board 4 and Communities of Maspeth and Elmhurst Together, Martin-Garibaldi said that the alliance’s goal is to provide “temporary emergency shelter” while the client works their way back to permanent housing. While there is no set limit on the amount of time an individual can stay there, she noted that it’s in Queens Alliance’s interest to turn over units so new residents can move in.

The Queens Alliance is funded by the city Human Resource Administration, which will direct clients to the facility. While no one has been assigned there yet, individuals could begin arriving at any time, said Martin-Garibaldi. The alliance has the right to reject certain clients and will not accept sex offenders or parolees. “They’re not just sending us anyone and we’re not going to take anyone,” she said, stressing that the building will not serve as a halfway house, drug rehab center or medical facility.

At the start of the session, Richard Italiano, district manager of CB 4, gave the crowd some bad news: the area is zoned for community facilities, meaning the building can be used in this manner as-of-right with no prior approval needed. As a result, many residents were only just learning about the plan, even though Queens Alliance has been eligible to receive clients for more than a week.

Many residents used the meeting to vent frustration over not having any say before the project was approved. “They have no right to do this,” said CB 4 member Nick Pennachio. “They just dump everything in Elmhurst – we have our share here.” He questioned whether there are also similar projects in neighborhoods such as Forest Hills and Rego Park and noted that property values will decrease as a result. “Queens Alliance is not welcome here.”

The feeling that Elmhurst and Maspeth shoulder an unfair burden of projects affecting the quality of life was echoed by several other residents. “Not to disrespect you, but Maspeth and Elmhurst get a lot of [crap] from the city… It’s not fair,” said another resident, to loud applause.

Since the project is allowed under the zoning, Roe Daraio, president of COMET, focused on Queens Alliance’s background and the regulations they must follow in order to remain open and continue receiving city funding. She noted that the organization doesn’t have a Website and couldn’t be located through a Google search. In addition, the 58th Avenue building that will house the homeless individuals is also listed as the alliance’s office.

Daraio said the guidelines governing these types of facilities will be distributed to the community to make sure proper procedures are being followed. “If they don’t follow the guidelines, perhaps we can get it shut down,” she said. “We are one community and we have to fight the battles together.”

Others feared that problems could arise due to the shelter’s proximity to nearby schools, churches and daycare centers. “What happens when school gets out? I don’t think it is right… We pay our taxes, we work hard for our homes and we get this,” said resident Maria McDonald, who said her husband was attacked along Queens Boulevard several years ago by a resident of a group home located near the shelter.

Linda Lam was particularly frustrated that the residents had no prior warning of the plan, and said one reason the neighborhood is forced to shoulder more than its fair share of community facilities is due to the low turnout rate of voters. She vowed to help mobilize the neighborhood and rally in front of the property to bring attention to the situation. “Why must we be further burdened? We get dumped on time and time again,” said Lam. “We will do what it takes to prevent this homeless shelter from destroying our neighborhood and from hurting our children.”

Martin-Garibaldi stressed that there will be security guards on site around the clock. However, many in the crowd groaned and booed when she said that the guards would call the police in the case of a serious situation. Under questioning, she stated that there would be two guards on at a time, leaving some to argue that the alliance isn’t doing enough to ensure the facility doesn’t present a threat to the neighborhood.

“Trust me, I know what the community is saying.... but these are our people and they have to go somewhere,” said Martin-Garibaldi. “I understand your concers and respect them all.”

Among the most concerned was Brayan Terrazas, an NYPD housing officer who lives next door to the property. He said the building formerly housed college students and said it’s unfair that it will now be used in a less neighborhood-friendly manner. After several years with the NYPD, “I know about all the problems [housing] brings with it,” he told Martin-Garibaldi. “It’s just going to be problems,” he added, predicting that two security guards will be unable to effectively monitor 29 adults, especially since the building has entrances in the front and rear.

This portion of Elmhurst is in the City Council district of Melinda Katz (D-Forest Hills), who was not at Monday’s meeting. A resident said she called Katz’s district office but was told by an aide that the effort is a lost cause since the project is allowed under the zoning. Instead, the aide suggested that the resident consider hiring an attorney, a solution she said was not acceptable.

Katz’s office did not return a call left with a staff member on Tuesday.

However, Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village), whose district is south of the area, attended the meeting. She told residents that “just because we’ve heard that it is as-of-right, it doesn’t mean that it’s right.” Crowley said the legislation needs to be changed so that shelters within residential areas must be approved by the community. She vowed to assist with protests and other efforts “to make sure this doesn’t go through.”

Ultimately, Martin-Garibaldi was unable to appease most of the fears. “The only thing I can tell you at this point is that time will tell,” she said, again drawing loud boos and groans from the crowd. She later said she was “surprised” by the large turnout and residents’ objections. “I didn’t expect this today,” she said.

The residents are planning to rally in front of the building on Saturday, July 11 at 11 a.m

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