Scott Stringer had heard enough.
After six weeks of angry phone calls from elected officials from Queens, the city comptroller fired off a letter to Gilbert Taylor, the Department of Homeless Services commissioner, telling the agency to change its ways.
“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 due to a failure to consider either legitimate potential neighborhood impacts or the health of the families the residences are intended to support,” the comptroller wrote July 17.
Stringer took action after thousands protested in Elmhurst after 180 homeless families were settled into the Pan American Hotel, at 79-99 Queens Blvd. in June, with no prior notice to the community.
On July 6, DHS moved 121 more homeless families into the Westway Motel at 71-11 Astoria Blvd. in East Elmhurst. But again the agency gave no prior notice to the community, saying it was an emergency measure during a crisis in which the city is facing a record census of homeless families.
More than 350 area residents blasted the agency during a heated town hall meeting at the Museum of the Moving Image July 16. Several arguments broke out and several people were escorted from the museum’s auditorium.
Rose Marie Poveromo, president of the United Community Civic Association, which organized the meeting, said, “It was a deliberate, furtive and covert operation reeking of disrespect for our elected officials, community leaders and the community at large. We were advised after the fact and consider the action of the DHS an abuse of power.”
The community was further outraged because they had stopped DHS from turning the Westway Motel into a permanent shelter back in 2012. Instead, the agency was allowed to use the facility for emergency overnight stays.
“This is a compassionate community, but we have a large problem with the mayoral directive that put a shelter here,” City Councilman Costa Constantinides (D-Astoria) said. “I’m in unison with our elected officials that feel the emergency declaration was used to bypass the elected officials and the community board in the process.”
State Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas (D-Astoria) agreed, saying, “Of course, the town hall meeting was heated because we feel we’ve been shut out of the process.”
The DHS responded with a terse statement that read: “It is regrettable that in the midst of an increase in the number of homeless families entering shelters, our partners in government choose to distort the facts and plan protests in front of men, women and children with nowhere else to turn.”
But after the letter from Stringer, Taylor released a memo to elected officials and community leaders promising a seven-day notification process before using a potential shelter site in the future.
Simotas was not impressed.
“Seven days’ notice to open up any kind of shelter that would affect the community is woefully inadequate, in my opinion,” she said.
Meanwhile, in Elmhurst, two churches and several youth groups tried to show a better side of the community after the DHS bused families to the movies so the children would not have to witness a third rally against the shelter at the Pan American Hotel July 22.
The Reformed Church of Newtown hosted a barbecue for the residents of the shelter in the parking lot of New Life Church. More than 200 Pan Am residents attended with their children enjoying face-painting, animal balloon-making and water balloon tossing.
Julian Delarosa, 16, a member of Newtown’s English Congregation said, “There’s been so much negativity surrounding them we just wanted to show them some love and welcome them to the neighborhood.”
After everyone joined together to dance the “Electric Slide,” DHS official Terri Rhabb said, “They’re enjoying themselves --- it’s an act of kindness that doesn’t come their way often these days.”
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4538.
©2014 Community News Group
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