Shelter squabble: Homelessness pits communities against city

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GLENDALE, Queens (PIX11) — In the quiet neighborhood of Glendale, on Cooper Avenue, sits a dormant, run-down factory building hidden behind a chain-link fence. Neighbors see the building and surrounding facilities as a solution to overflowing classrooms in their neighborhood and others in the borough.

“It’s the most overcrowded school district in the City of New York. And this would be a complex for all district 24,” said former school board member Kathy Masi. “Kids from Ridgewood, kids from Corona, kids from Middle Village, Maspeth, everyone would be able to come here.”

But instead of a school, the building is slated to become a shelter.  Once a rumor, the $27 million plan continues to inch closer to reality.  And in the meantime, other shelters have popped up around the borough, seemingly overnight.  That was almost exactly the case at the site of the former Pan Am hotel where families moved in under the cover of darkness back in June.

“This is going on all over Queens,” said Dawn Scala with the Glendale Civic Association. “There’s a total lack of transparency. They’re putting shelters in with no community notice or involvement. And every time we ask questions we get answers that are vague and inconsistent with prior information they’ve given us.”

The Pan Am shelter has been so controversial that both the shelter residents and neighbors protested outside shortly after it opened. Those staying in the shelter say they’re cramped into small rooms, have no way to control the temperature, and are told when they can eat.

“Being here is like being in Rikers Island, being in prison,” said shelter resident Weny Jamison.

But the Department of Homeless Services has an overwhelming mandate to provide shelter for every person that comes to them asking for help — a number that’s exploded since 2006.  The Coalition for the Homeless says more than 56,000 people now depend on city shelters each and every night.

“When the site came to us we had no choice but act,” said DHS Deputy Commissioner Camille Rivera. “Because of our legal and moral mandate for shelter we needed to find a space that was viable for them and the Pan Am building was that site.”

After the move, and plenty of angry phone calls, city Comptroller Scott Stringer ordered DHS to change the operating procedures.

“Time and time again, I have seen communities that were traditionally welcoming of shelter facilities and supportive housing react negatively to a rushed DHS placement,” Stringer wrote.

The organization responded by creating a policy to “try and notify” communities at least 7 days before opening new shelters. Making matters worse, the Pan Am shelter AND the proposed site on Cooper Avenue would be run by Samaritan Village: a company that misused 1-million-dollars of taxpayer money according to an investigation by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.

“Knowing they get an allotted budget of funds and in the past have taken whatever excess has gone unspent and paid them out as bonuses, that’s a fact, that’s offensive to me as a taxpayer and a voter,” said Glendale resident Ryan Huber.

Opponents of the plan have raised more than 25-thousand-dollars to fight the Cooper Avenue Shelter.

But DHS is trying to ease the burden on taxpayers by investing in prevention rather than treatment of homelessness.

“We’re targeting people where they are and we’re hoping to create services that will help them to stay stably housed and not have to come in,” said DHS Commissioner Gilbert Taylor.

The organization added 20-million dollars, nearly doubling its investment, to pay back rent for those facing eviction and improve social services in shelters to prevent relapse rates.  An initiative that led Mary Brosnahan, President of the Coalition for the Homeless, to say:

“Mayor de Blasio’s housing plan is promising, because it is both comprehensive and nuanced. The main emphasis is rightly placed on prevention to stem the tide of families pouring into emergency shelter by keeping them in their homes.”

So by the time the dust settles in the fight over the warehouse on Cooper Avenue, there’s a chance the plans for bedrooms could be replaced by classrooms.  But much like the fight against homelessness, it’s an uphill battle.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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