Members of the Elmhurst United Civic Association approached state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Flushing) to enlist his help in fighting against permanent status for the homeless shelter in the former Pan American Hotel at 79-00 Queens Blvd.
After taking a tour of the Boulevard Family Residence soon afterward, one in which he was not allowed to speak to any of the residents, Avella joined a dozen members of the association in denouncing the city’s plans at the facility Friday.
The chairman of the Senate’s Social Services Committee said there was a sense of urgency to act six months after the Department of Homeless Services began moving homeless families into the shelter with no warning to the surrounding community or elected officials, especially now that the city is about to sign a contract with Samaritan Village.
“It is an outrage to take an abandoned hotel, warehouse homeless families inside it, ignore shocking(yes) City Code and HPD violations, waste an exorbitant amount of taxpayers dollars in the process, and then award a $42 million contract to a questionable-at-best organization, making the entire situation permanent,” Avella said. “I understand the vital importance of addressing our growing homeless population and I am committed to working to resolve these issues. However, this cannot be at the expense of homeless families and children or the community as a whole. We must look to fix this broken system, not warehouse those people that need our help most.”
Avella also noted that the cost to taxpayers to maintain “this rundown location” is $3,776.53 per month for each unit, a red flag that the current system has failed. He pointed to ongoing quality-of-life issues and code violations.
“The most egregious is there are no kitchen facilities in the rooms ---they truck in food,” Avella said, calling it a violation of city law.
He also provided copies of complaints received by the city Department of Housing Preservation that show a lack of heat and hot water and the presence of bed bugs in the shelter. According to the DHS, bed bugs were identified in five of the building’s units, which are currently being treated by a professional extermination company.
In addition, John Schaffer, an area resident and member of Elmhurst United, charged that trash was not being properly disposed of at the facility in violation of multiple state and city codes.
“Trash is not in containers piling as tall as a man in stacks that rival the last sanitation strike,” he said. “If Samaritan Village is blatantly breaking the law in public view, what is going on behind closed doors? They do not deserve a signed contract.”
A spokesman at the Department of Homeless Services said, “We have worked swiftly with our provider to respond to all concerns in the building. Providing adequate shelter for families in need is a priority for this administration, and it’s heartening to see the community concern about the welfare of these families — an encouraging development after unfortunate and regrettable opposition to this shelter.”
Area resident Jennifer Chu, a member of Community Board 4 and several civic associations, helped form Elmhurst United as a “united voice” in opposition to the shelter. She thought the associations were unfairly maligned as racists after several rallies of mostly Asian protesters engaged in shouting matches with residents at the shelter, the majority of whom are black and Hispanic.
“The whole point of the public review process is to make sure that the community has a say in what’s going on in their neighborhood, and to make sure that the proposed facility is appropriate and will serve the community’s needs,” Chu said. “Through this review process, we would have discovered that the Pan Am hotel does not even meet the city requirements for family shelters because it doesn’t have cooking facilities. Looking at the proposed 5-year, $42 million contract that DHS intends to sign with Samaritan Village to run the shelter, there are no plans to construct any kitchens for these families. Even DHS Assistant Commissioner Lisa Black acknowledged that the Pan Am hotel would not be suitable for families with children.”
DHS officials maintain that the building was remodeled before families were moved in, that it was certified led-free this past July and that there are no problems with heat. They also say there has always been hot water but a hot water booster has been installed and hot water pressure has been at full capacity since Dec. 7.
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr
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