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Homeless shelter opposition builds

Plans to transform the recently closed Best Western hotel near Kennedy Airport into a homeless shelter have sparked opposition from a neighborhood coalition, the Southeast Queens Concerned Neighbors, as well as elected officials.

The coalition of civic groups and block associations created more than 10 years ago to lead a successful battle to transform a homeless shelter, the Kennedy Inn, on Baisley Boulevard into the Sheraton JFK Airport hotel, fears a reversal of its efforts if the facility reopens as a 335-room homeless shelter as planned.

”They seem to feel that we are expendable," said Ruth Bryan, president of the Southeast Queens Concerned Neighbors, the coalition of civic groups and block associations from South Ozone Park, Jamaica, and South Jamaica. The group is perhaps best known for its opposition to the nearly completed AirTrain on the Van Wyck Expressway.

More than 75 residents and six elected officials braved howling winds and hard rain last Thursday to attend a meeting at the Radisson hotel, next to the closed Best Western, to discuss the best way to fight the proposed shelter. Residents and elected officials said such a facility would adversely affect the economic development and quality of life in the largely black, middle-class neighborhood near the airport.

“We are not against the homeless, but we are against the over-saturation of this community,” said Councilman James Sanders (D-Laurelton). “We have done more than our fair share.”

Sanders said despite the presence of hotels such as the Sheraton, a preponderance of homeless shelters and group homes exists in the neighborhood, but he offered no specific numbers.

Ninety-nine percent of the time a community forgets about a homeless shelter once it opens, because homeless shelters make good neighbors,” said Jim Anderson, a spokesman for the city's Department of Homeless Services.

Anderson said that under reorganization plans filed with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Manhattan, the Salvation Army would lease the Best Western Carlton House for five years. The hearings, postponed several times, are next scheduled for Thursday, said Councilman Allan Jennings (D-Jamaica), who also attended the meeting.

He also said the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan all have higher numbers and a larger concentration of homeless shelters. There are currently more than 7,000 families in the city shelter system.

Emotions at the meeting ran high as residents expressed anger at the proposed shelter and discussed ways the group could repeat its success back when the former Kennedy Inn closed its doors and reopened as the Sheraton. But Assemblywoman Vivian Cook (D-South Ozone Park) said the civic group had done its part by bringing it to the attention of city and state officials.

”You have done what you had to do — the next step is up to us," said Cook.

Cook said she would like to see either an aviation job-training center or an elderly assisted-living facility instead of a homeless shelter.

But Jennings said he is working with a group of investors who hope to buy the hotel from its owner, the JFK Acquisitions Group, and maintain the property as a hotel. He said the only way to prevent the creation of a homeless shelter is if creditors get their money back.

Many hotels relying on airline travelers were hard hit after the Sept. 11 attacks.

State Sen. Ada Smith (D-Jamaica) alluded to the issue of race, which is usually not discussed directly at southeast Queens public meetings. Smith said she had spoken with New York Secretary of State Randy Daniels, “who looks like us” (meaning he is black), and his pull with Gov. George Pataki might help to halt the project.

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