By JON CRONIN
Representatives from the city’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS) found themselves in a contentious exchange with Ozone Park residents last Thursday as they discussed plans at a meeting to open a homeless shelter in the community that will house 113 mentally ill men.
The DHS took questions from visibly upset community members during a meeting on July 19 that drew approximately 400 people to the basement of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church.
Sam Esposito, an Ozone Park resident who lives near the proposed shelter, organized the meeting and gave a 20-minute speech during which he stated that the community is against the shelter as a “commonsense” method of protecting its streets. He believes the shelter will bring homeless people who might defecate in the streets, sleep on their lawns, and burglarize and possibly sexually assault residents.
Esposito, who is a retired NYPD officer, said that when a shelter opened on Bedford Avenue in an area of Brooklyn that he patrolled years ago, it brought violence and crime to the area. He said that many crimes in connection with the shelter went unreported.
“We did not invest to stay here to live in fear,” he told the packed room.
Esposito said that he is planning a protest in front of the Cedarhurst, Long Island, home of the building’s owner, Asher Shafran. He added that Shafran was hiding behind the LLC—through which he bought the property—and he wants Shafran’s neighbors to know how he makes a living.
“There a special place in hell for people like him,” said Esposito, drawing cheers from the crowd.
Joslyn Carter, a DHS administrator, told the crowd that the residents of the shelter “do have moral and values,” while Jackie Bray, the DHS’ first deputy commissioner, said that the residents of the shelter are not dangerous, a comment that received boos and hisses from the crowd.
State Sen. Joe Addabbo (D-Howard Beach), Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park), Assemblyman Mike Miller (D-Woodhaven) and Assemblywoman Stacey Pheffer Amato (D-Rockaway Park) all referenced the values of the community and that it welcomes those in need, but they noted that the proposed shelter at 85-15 101st Ave. did not belong so close to schools and churches.
Miller said that the city had displayed a lack of transparency while choosing the location, and noted the amount of taxpayer money that the shelter’s owner would receive. Addabbo called Mayor Bill de Blasio’s leadership in the homeless crisis “inept.”
“You’ve created fear, animosity and frustration that I have never seen in another administration,” he told the DHS panel. “Include us. Like everyone else here, we are being shut out of the process.”
Ulrich stated that de Blasio inherited a “safer, cleaner, greener” city from Mayor Michael Bloomberg that had 10,000 fewer homeless people, and that de Blasio’s management has changed all that. Ulrich added that he recommended two sites for the shelter to the DHS—one on Atlantic Avenue that is owned by the city and another behind Jamaica Hospital.
Ulrich said he believed that the community would support a shelter for victims of domestic abuse, but not mentally ill men.
“They deserve services, they deserve compassion, they deserve shelter, but they don’t deserve it on 101st Avenue,” Ulrich said.
Vance Barbour, a member of the Woodhaven Residents Block Association, asked the DHS how many people returned to the shelter system once they left. Bray responded that if a homeless person goes through the DHS system, gets a job and receives financial assistance for his apartment, approximately 2 percent will return to the system. She added that if a former shelter resident leaves the system and moves in with family, the return rate is 10 percent.
Lawanna Kimbro, the DHS’ chief program delivery officer, explained that the shelter would be operated in coordination with the 102nd Precinct, and the NYPD would come up with security plans for the site. There would also be 28 security cameras throughout the facility and grounds as well as contracted security officers who would be overseen by the NYPD. There would be two guards at each entrance around the clock, and a minimum of four guards and one supervisor per shift. There would also be a 24-hour hotline for the shelter to address community concerns and immediate issues.
One resident asked Bray what should be done if a shelter resident is nude while outside the shelter. Bray answered that the person should call the shelter’s hotline, and audience members scoffed at the suggestion.
Lantern, a nonprofit that will manage the site, will offer job counseling, case management, housing placement, and health and wellness services. Off site, shelter residents will be offered educational services, legal services, drug abuse counseling and conflict mediation. The shelter will have a 10 p.m. curfew. The DHS estimates that each adult will be there for one year.
Esposito said that he hired a lawyer—E.Christopher Murray of Ruskin, Moscou and Faltischek on Long Island—to represent Ozone Park residents in a lawsuit against the city.
On a GoFundMe account, Esposito has raised approximately $12,000 to pay for legal services. He said that any money that is not spent on legal services will go toward the needy families of Ozone Park.