When the city converted the Pan American hotel into a shelter for homeless families in June 2014 without any dialogue with the Elmhurst community, homeowners and other residents were outraged and racially charged rallies and town hall meeting ensued as the Asian community was roiled. Lester Lin, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, was shocked to hear racial epithets being hurled at the mostly black and Hispanic residents of the shelter.
“Let’s just say Elmhurst didn’t put its best face on during those protests, especially our Asian community,” Lin said. “It was disheartening, but I understood how information was being misused. I knew I had some work to do to mend fences and help the people living at the Pan Am hotel.”
Lin, the youth director at the Reformed Church of Newtown, gathered more than 50 of the teenagers he had worked with for more than 14 years and held a welcome barbecue for the families living in the newly named Boulevard Family Residence on July 26, 2014. That effort grew into City Mission, a nonprofit organization made up of more than 200 teenagers, mostly from Elmhurst, but with members from Maspeth, Middle Village, Jackson Heights and Woodside. The group has become a regular presence at the shelter with monthly programs, reading time, choreography sessions, arts and crafts, picture day, toy drives and holiday parties.
“At the beginning we had no idea what we were doing, but we began to figure it out along the way,” Lin said. “We began to build relationships with the families that live in the shelter with tutoring for the kids and resume assistance for the adults. Things have mellowed considerably with the people who protested over time and now I have relationships with many of them.”
Over the weekend, Lin was informed that the Coalition for the Homeless, the nation’s oldest advocacy and direct service organization helping homeless individuals and families, had honored the group.
“In the spirit of the season, and with a desire to bring well-deserved attention to inspiring examples of human kindness, the Coalition for the Homeless is proud to announce the recipients of our second annual Compassionate Communities Award: Lester Lin and the City Mission volunteers in Elmhurst, Queens,” the statement said. “The Elmhurst, Queens neighbors have demonstrated the very best our communities have to offer those in need with their kind, cordial support for the homeless families in their midst. May we all learn from their example and experiences.”
The coalition explained the award is for those New Yorkers who react to the news of a homeless shelter opening in their community “not with knee-jerk resistance and hyperbolic alarmism, but with understanding and rationality. They are motivated by a genuine desire to help those who are experiencing the trauma of homelessness, and open their arms to those in need.”
Lin was shocked and his team of volunteers were very proud of the award.
“They’re all really excited over this, but I have to say, we were all pretty surprised by this,” Lin said. “We didn’t even know Coalition of the Homeless even knew about us. We just wanted to be nice and help them, to get the kids involved and integrated into the neighborhood. We believe in ethics and morals and we want to give back.”
Most recently, the volunteers created a coding class for shelter residents who want to learn a valuable new skill that could give them a boost in the job market, and while City Mission grew out of Lin’s church group, it’s not about pushing religion on the residents.
“Certainly not. We don’t try to bring religion into this at all,” Lin said with a laugh. “It’s just easier to work with local churches because they don’t charge me anything. It’s just a good network of people who want to do good things. As long as they are here, we want to show compassion and help them through their times of struggle. We all need some grace and compassion.””
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparr