BY LUIS GRONDA AND JACKIE STRAWBRIDGE
The Dept. of Homeless Services will now give one week advanced notice before opening a homeless shelter in your neighborhood.
The agency announced the change in policy last week in a letter signed by its commissioner, Gilbert Taylor, sent to elected officials and community leaders.
In the letter, Taylor writes the agency has created the notification process as part of its mandate to find shelter for the homeless and to give the community notice before it opens a shelter in the future.
“DHS will do its best to make community and elected officials aware of all shelter sites under consideration as early as possible. Once a proposed site is deemed acceptable, the seven-day notification process will begin and the agency will proactively engage the community and elected officials in discussion about the site,” he wrote.
The policy change comes after the DHS has caught a lot of heat for three shelters in Queens, in Astoria, Elmhurst and Rockaway, with community members and elected officials saying they were given little to no notice about the shelters. The DHS has also been attempting to open another facility in Glendale for the past couple of years.
The letter breaks down, day by day, what the agency plans on doing once they identify a property for a shelter, including notifying the local police precinct and all citywide officials seven days before it opens and scheduling meetings with community leaders as well. The letter also said they may need to abbreviate the notification process if necessary.
Reaction to the new policy was negative among the community leaders who have been vocal about the opposition to the homeless shelters the agency has created throughout the Borough.
Bob Holden, president of the Juniper Park Civic Association, called the policy “lip service” and said it does not change the fact that the agency has not listened to the community’s concerns.
“We know they’re not listening,” he said. “They’re not addressing specific questions.”
Kathy Masi, who heads the Glendale Civic Association, said there should be a 90-day advance notice of a shelter opening instead of just one week.
Jennifer Chu, a member of the Communities of Maspeth and Elmhurst Together Civic group and one of the organizers of the protests against the Pan Am Hotel shelter, echoed a similar sentiment.
“If the Pan Am was incorporated in 2013 and purchased in February, then why would seven-days notice suffice? We should know what they’re planning to do before any contract is signed and not after the decisions have all been made,” she said.
The letter also delineates scheduling of town hall and community meetings at day four.
Last week, at one such town hall meeting organized by the United Community Civic Association, hundreds of Astoria residents expressed their outrage over the high capacity shelter recently installed at the Westway Motel, operated by Women In Need (WIN).
One speaker, who received a standing ovation from the crowd, asked whether the neighborhood’s recently raised property taxes would go back down. She added that the population of homeless men in the area has left her feeling unsafe when jogging, and she questioned why the WIN Westway shelter is lodging men as well as women and children.
Lisa Letizia was among several residents who challenged the DHS’ assertion that Westway is guarded with 24-hour security. Letizia said she lives across the street from the shelter, and has seen families leaving and reentering the building throughout the late evening.
“If you are saying to me that there are some issues [with security], we’re going to work with the Community Board…to make sure that we’re answering those questions for you,” responded DHS Deputy Commissioner Camille Rivera.
Anthony Aldorasi, a lifelong resident of Western Queens and a former teacher and principal, asked “the children of the center, where are they going to be educated, and are they going to displace the children that have a normal place at schools within the community?”
According to the DHS, there are 129 children at the site, 21 percent of whom are teenagers who will return to the schools they currently attend. Thirty-nine percent are between the ages of 6 and 12, Rivera said they would work closely with WIN to ensure the same is true for them.
Community Education Council 24, which covers schools in the potential Glendale homeless shelter, will have a meeting regarding the impact of homeless shelters on the schools in that district on August 6.
Reach Luis Gronda at (718) 357-7400, ext. 127, firstname.lastname@example.org or @luisgronda.