BY SAM RAPPAPORT
At a Community Board 9 meeting on Tuesday night, a woman called out from the depths of a crowded banquet hall in Ozone Park to urge the board members, who were sitting in a horseshoe at the center of the room, to move the issue of a proposed homeless shelter in the area to the top of their agenda.
“Ninety-nine percent of us are here about the shelter,” she yelled, and hundreds of impatient community members erupted into applause.
The scene underscored the frustration of a great number of Queens residents, who have continuously and vigorously resisted the city’s housing of homeless men, women and families in their neighborhoods.
The question of where to put them, however, is a challenge when there’s nowhere left for them to go. In December, New York City’s homeless population reached an all-time high. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, an average of 63,495 men, women and children checked into the shelter system each night.
The city’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS) lists the number of homeless New Yorkers sheltered in Queens at 10,500. Nearly half of them are sheltered in commercial hotels, while the rest are placed in traditional shelters and privately owned apartment complexes throughout the borough.
Caving to crowd pressure, the community board amended the agenda, and Sam Esposito, an Ozone Park resident and former Community Board 9 member, stepped toward the podium.
“We did not invest in this community to have to live in fear,” Esposito said after declaring his opposition to the shelter, which is planned for 85-15 101st Ave. “This is not about hate; it is not about not caring; it is not about racism. This is about the quality of life that is about to be turned upside down like nothing this community has ever seen.”
A line of community members followed Esposito at the podium. All of them asserted that they were strongly opposed to the shelter.
The shelter, the DHS confirmed, would serve a population of single adult men experiencing mental health challenges. Many of the residents at Tuesday’s meeting pointed to this fact as the reason for their opposition to the shelter.
The mother of a child at PS 64, which is a quarter-mile from the site of the proposed shelter, told board members that she feared for her family’s safety.
“It is not a crime to be homeless, but if someone poses imminent harm to my family, it is a problem,” she said.
One woman, who described herself as a concerned taxpayer and single mother, suggested that the DHS find another group of people to place in the proposed shelter.
“There are women and veterans,” she said. “Do not put this population of mentally ill homeless people in our community.”
Over the past decade, homelessness in the city has risen 82 percent. Experts point to a combination of rising rents, stagnating incomes and decades of policy decisions that have limited access to affordable housing for homeless and low-income New Yorkers.
Thomas J. Main, a professor at Baruch College’s School of Public and International Affairs, stopped just short of calling the situation of homelessness in New York a crisis.
“I would say it’s sub-optimal,” Main told the Queens Tribune. “I just remember the late 1970s and early 1980s, when there were homeless people all over the street with no provisions at all.”
According to Main, the city’s homeless population skyrocketed under Mayor Michael Bloomberg after he ended subsidies for homeless families hoping to move out of the shelter system and cut the preference system for homeless families applying for public housing.
Main acknowledged that Mayor Bill de Blasio inherited a mess when he took office, but said that he has not done an adequate job of cleaning it up.
“De Blasio deserves a certain amount of sympathy. He was dealt a bad hand,” Main said. “Though, he has not always played that hand as best he could.”
In the fall of 2014, de Blasio reintroduced a limited rental assistance program known as LINC (Living In Communities) in an attempt to reduce the shelter population.
“He implemented a subsidy program that he thought would be effective enough and then waited for the shelter census to go down,” Main said.
But the shelter census only grew. Since 2014, more than 10,000 people have been added to the city’s shelter system.
“De Blasio got the program,” Main said, “and the program, for reasons that remain mysterious—but it might be lack of generosity or the way it’s implemented—the program hasn’t had the impact he’s hoped it would.”
Counting on the ability of LINC to decrease the shelter population, the city temporarily stopped building new homeless shelters, Main said. But when the homeless population continued to rise, the city turned increasingly to commercial hotels, a trend that has been criticized for its cost and intrusiveness.
De Blasio has vowed to completely end the practice of using commercial hotels and cluster sites (privately owned apartments) as homeless shelters in the coming years. And while the city ends its reliance on commercial hotels for the homeless, it plans on building 90 new and more-effective traditional shelters. There are currently 28 traditional, permanent shelters across Queens.
Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, however, believes that it will be difficult for the city to fully extricate itself from its dependence on commercial hotel rooms and rented apartment buildings for the homeless.
“I think there are going to be a lot more hotels and renting out before the city finalizes its plan,” Katz said. “We need to work with the state to create programs to keep people in their homes.”
Katz said that while a new shelter strategy might alleviate some woes, the city needs a comprehensive set of programs aimed at protecting low-income New Yorkers from eviction to address homelessness.
“If I know I can’t pay my bills, and I know I have another rent due at end of month and I don’t have enough money, there are very few systems in place to allow me to stay in my apartment,” Katz said. “And at the end of the day, that would save us money and create stability in the community.”
Community stability has been a major focus of both the city and community residents resistant to encroaching homeless populations. For years, Queens residents have taken issue with the city for bringing homeless populations from throughout the city into the borough. In turn, the city has pledged to do its best in sheltering homeless individuals and families in the communities from which they hail.
According to the DHS, the number of homeless individuals from Queens is currently 8,300. Many of those people are sheltered across the city, and it is unclear what percentage of the homeless population housed in Queens is originally from the borough.
“My biggest concern is that we have a lot of homeless families that are taken out of their communities,” Katz stated. “Children are being taken away from their homes and put in a new school system. And I think the biggest arguments we get are that people are coming from all over the city who want to be housed [and] aren’t from the neighborhoods that they’re being housed in.”
Just as it seemed that the last words had been spoken on the topic of the homeless shelter at Tuesday’s meeting in Ozone Park, City Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) took the podium.
“The last thing this community needs and deserves is a slap in the face from the Department of Homeless Services,” Ulrich told the crowd. “You cannot place over 100 single male adults with mental issues in the heart of this community.”
Ulrich, however, presented the community with a possible solution. According to the councilman, Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks agreed to give the community a brief time frame to come up with alternative locations in Community Board District 9 in which to build the shelter.
“We have a homelessness crisis, and they have to go somewhere,” Ulrich said. “At least, we can come up with some alternatives.”
“Put them in Rikers,” a man yelled from the back of the banquet hall to scattered applause.
“I know this community is compassionate,” Ulrich said. “I need your help. We have a short window of opportunity.”
Reach reporter Sam Rappaport via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (718) 357-7400, ext. 123.