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Queens pols protest plan for JFK homeless shelter

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Queens politicians gathered on the steps of City Hall Monday to protest plans to convert the 335-room Best Western Carlton House near Kennedy Airport into a homeless shelter.

At the protest, staged three days after a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge approved the proposal, the officials contended the shelter at 138-10 135th Ave. in Jamaica would be in the wrong place at the wrong time for a community that is in the process of rebuilding itself economically.

“We are not against the homeless,” said state Assemblywoman Vivian Cook (D-South Ozone Park), who was among the elected officials protesting the proposal. “We are against destroying business.”

The politicians took their case to City Hall after a ruling in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Manhattan gave JFK Acquisition Group, the hotel’s owner, the right to negotiate a temporary lease agreement with the Salvation Army to convert the hotel into a shelter. The contract would enable the facility to operate until Sept. 30.

The Salvation Army would then lease the shelter to the city’s Department of Homeless Services, said Jim Anderson, a spokesman for the city agency.

    “This is a temporary arrangement that was put in place until the final papers are completed,” he said.

Borough President Helen Marshall and several southeast Queens city, state, and federal elected officials emphasized that while they are not opposed to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s homeless policy or to homeless people in their community, they are concerned about how the proposed shelter could affect the area.

Community Board 12, which stretches from downtown Jamaica to the airport, encompasses 12 homeless shelters housing more than 950 families. These include the Saratoga Interfaith Inn, the largest Tier II shelter in the city housing almost 250 families, which is just two miles away.

A Tier II shelter means the facility can house a family for a maximum of 27 days while they and the city search for permanent housing. The proposed shelter at the Best Western Carleton House is also slated to be a Tier II facility.

Queens officials are concerned that the additional people could place a strain on area resources, such as money for public schools.

“If children are involved and have to move out after 27 days, what happens to education programs?” asked Ruth Bryan, president of South East Queens Concerned Neighbors, Inc., who attended the protest.

Officials also worry that the shelter will discourage the economic revitalization in the community that has been centered around the airport and downtown Jamaica, said City Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans).

    The proposed shelter lies along a strip of five adjacent hotels and sits directly across from a residential area. Comrie characterized the area as a community version of Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue and said he fears the effect of the shelter’s presence on this economic center.

“There is no Tier II facility in the city that has a positive economic effect on its surrounding community,” he said at the protest.

    State Sen. Ada Smith (D-Jamaica) said one of the hotels adjacent to the proposed shelter site has threatened to leave the area if the shelter is instituted.

“It’s not about homeless people,” she said. “We have taken our fair share and are willing to take more. But it’s clear that this is not the correct place for it.”

But Anderson said the proposal is an attempt by his department to place a growing number of homeless families into homes as quickly as possible.

“The department has both a legal and ethical responsibility to provide shelter to families in need,” he said. “We have no choice but to increase our capacity to meet this need.”

Despite the protests, Anderson said his department expects the home to soon become an accepted part of the community.

“Oftentimes when shelters go into a community there are questions and concerns,” he said. “Ultimately, the shelters become part of the community, and we think that in time that will be the case here, too.”

The proposed plan would cost the city $14 million to renovate the shelter and, according to protesters, which would translate to $72 a day per family and $2,016 a month for each room.

“Give us $14 million and we’ll build homes for these families,” Marshall said.

She also criticized the plan because she said the building is too large to benefit its future residents.

“It’s not a home,” she said. “It’s an institution.”

U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-St. Albans) called on Bloomberg to work with Queens officials to reach a resolution.

    “This is a mayoral decision,” he said. “We’ll tell the mayor, ‘Let’s work together.’ We want them to work with us the way we work with them. We’re here to implore the mayor to change his mind -- he’s a businessman. We can’t bring down this middle-class community that we’re trying to revitalize.”

--Courtney Dentch contributed to this story

Posted 7:07 pm, October 10, 2011
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