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Non-profit sues to expand Jamaica homeless shelter

Homes for the Homeless, which operates the shelter, the Saratoga Interfaith Family Inn, is taking its case to State Supreme Court in Manhattan to appeal an earlier rejection by the Board of Standards and Appeals. A court date will be set April 6.

The non-profit, based in Manhattan, wants to add beds to its facility at 175-15 Rockaway Blvd. by constructing a building next to two former hotels it runs as a temporary shelter for 225 families. The expansion would add space for 91 families and make Saratoga the largest shelter in Queens, surpassing the nearby Carlton House run by the Salvation Army.

But many community leaders have said the area in southeast Queens in which the Saratoga sits is already oversaturated with group homes and shelters. They point to a letter Borough President Helen Marshall submitted to the BSA on Oct. 21 saying 12 shelters with a capacity of more than 1,000 families are located within a 5-1/2-mile radius inside Community Boards 12 and 13 in southeast Queens.

The project's opponents have acknowledged the need for shelters but have said other areas should share the burden. Any influx of additional residents at the facilities in southeast Queens would further tax schools, police precincts, ambulance services and firehouses, the opponents have said.

When it turned down the expansion request on Feb. 3, the BSA said it did not consider the issue of oversaturation and concluded that the existing use of the site by Homes for the Homeless did not hurt the neighborhood.

The BSA did, however, rule that the non-profit failed to prove that more beds were needed either at the shelter or in the larger city system. The Saratoga has a contract with the city's Department of Homeless Services, and while the department did not specifically encourage the expansion, a spokeswoman for the shelter said the department has a standing request citywide for more shelter space.

In its appeal, Homes for the Homeless is claiming that the BSA overstepped its jurisdiction when it examined the level of demand.

"That's not a zoning issue," said Howard Hornstein, the lawyer handling the case. "The board erred."

The area where the Saratoga is located is not zoned for a shelter, so the expansion had to be voted on by Community Board 13, which turned it down. The request then went to the BSA.

Hornstein declined to comment on why his client has decided to pursue its case rather than let the project drop. Among community opponents, Richard Hellenbrecht, chairman of Community Board 13, said he did not understand the non-profit's motivation.

"I don't have a clue as to why they're so anxious to throw $4 million at something that there's not necessarily a market for," he said, using his own estimate for the proposed building.

And Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) said, "it's not a surprise - it's a disappointment. They're a non-profit, but they still generate a lot of money."

The expansion proposal comes as the Bloomberg administration begins an initiative to prevent a high incidence rate of homelessness in six neighborhoods, including Jamaica. The other areas are South Bronx, East Tremont/Belmont, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bushwick and East Harlem.

While "demand for shelter continues to grow unabated," according to a press release issued by the Department of Homeless Services in January, the program will use community-based groups to assist people before they need the service.

"Preventing homelessness has to be our No. 1 priority," said Jim Anderson, a spokesman for the department. "We're trying to recalibrate the system."

Reach reporter Michael Morton by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by calling 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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