Clock runs out on shelter for homeless at Ft. Totten

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“We were quietly waiting for that...

By Ayala Ben-Yehuda

The deadline has elapsed for a homeless shelter to stake a claim on the former U.S. Coast Guard property at Fort Totten without any public or private group expressing interest in the land, the TimesLedger has learned.

“We were quietly waiting for that time to pass,” said U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Bayside), who played a key role in averting what he called “a great danger” to the area.

Ackerman said it would be expensive to rehabilitate the Coast Guard buildings for use by a homeless shelter and that such a project would not have constituted “the greatest good for the greatest number.”

The Coast Guard, which established a presence on Fort Totten in 1968, announced in 2000 that it would leave the fort as a cost-saving measure. The division, now administered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, is moving its operations to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, L.I. in a deal brokered by Ackerman to keep the Coast Guard stationed locally.

Ackerman said the next step for the Coast Guard property was to make it into a city park, possibly with a dock area for boaters. The congressman said Tuesday he had informed city Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe that the property was officially available and said the city intended to submit by Aug. 14 an application to acquire the land.

The northeast Queens congressman expressed concern that homeless people with psychiatric disorders and drug or alcohol problems could have been sharing park space with the community at large.

Under federal law, the Department of Housing and Urban Development or any other group seeking to establish a homeless shelter could have made a claim on the 9.6-acre former Coast Guard property after other federal agencies passed on it.

But neither HUD nor any other group did so during a 30-day window that expired at midnight Sunday.

“I, like most people in Bayside, have tremendous sympathy for the homeless,” said Ackerman, who three years ago lobbied former HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo not to put in a claim for a shelter. Cuomo, who is from Queens, had lived in nearby Douglaston.

Had HUD or a homeless group put in a claim on the Coast Guard land, “we could’ve lost the entire property and done tremendous damage not just to the integrity of the park but to the neighborhood surrounding it and all of northeast Queens,” Ackerman said.

HUD spokesman Adam Glantz said the agency passed on the property because it contained evidence of petroleum residue, mercury and radon gas, making it unsuitable for use by a non-profit group.

Mercury left over from years of torpedo repairs conducted at the fort was discovered by the Coast Guard at its station in 1985.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has found that mercury levels in the adjacent Little Bay do not pose a threat to human health. Investigation of the uplands portion of the site is set to be handled separately.

Ackerman said he had waited with “baited breath” to see if a homeless group would apply.

“We had to treat this with the utmost privacy and absence of publicity as we could,” he said.

The congressman did not merely sit on his hands. He said he worked tirelessly with the General Services Administration, the agency that publishes the Federal Register reports that describe government properties available to non-profit groups.

“Evidently the description was not as appealing for the homeless as if a real estate company” had promoted the property, Ackerman said.

This was not the first time the possibility of a homeless shelter loomed over the fort.

After the U.S. Defense Department portion of the fort was decommissioned in 1995, a host of groups came forward with proposals for use of the land that is now divided between the city Parks and Fire departments.

St. John’s University wanted to put dorms on Totten, and the Veterans Administration, working with Praxis Housing Initiatives, hoped to house homeless veterans with a history of substance abuse problems on the fort.

In the end, the city paid a homeless organization $7 million in cash and services in exchange for not using the fort, said Ackerman, but he did not know the name of the group that had received the money.

Warren Schreiber, first vice president of the Bay Terrace Community Alliance, expressed both sympathy with the plight of the homeless and relief that they would not be housed at nearby Fort Totten.

“Unfortunat­ely, the people that make up the homeless population, they have their own problems,” Schreiber said. “Whenever you introduce a large number of people with those problems into a community, it’s going to be a burden on that community, too.”

Schreiber recalled the concerns raised among locals when the earlier homeless organization expressed interest in using the fort.

“There were a lot of people in the community who were unhappy with that prospect,” he said.

Schreiber surmised that the fort’s isolated location had made it undesirable to a homeless group.

“It’s not easy to get to,” he said. “There are really no services around there that would benefit a homeless shelter.”

Geraldine Spinella, executive director of the Bayside Historical Society, which is headquartered at the fort, said the Coast Guard property was being used by the Bayside Volunteer Ambulance Corps, Police Department and Little League teams.

“I don’t think the community would’ve wanted a homeless facility on the waterfront in a park,” she said. “I don’t think there is a city park that has a homeless shelter in it.”

Reach reporter Ayala Ben-Yehuda by e-mail at or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

Posted 7:18 pm, October 10, 2011
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