A crowd protesting Elmhurst’s Pan Am homeless
shelter gathered Monday outside a public hearing
on the shelter.
BY JACKIE STRAWBRIDGE
Cries of “get a job,” “pay your rent” and “get out” rang across Goldsmith Street in Elmhurst Monday night, as protesters of the Pan American homeless shelter met counter-protesters from the shelter.
Thirty-six families were moved into the Pan American hotel in early June, to the surprise of the community and elected officials. Ninety now live there. The DHS had initially declared the site unsuitable, but then granted Samaritan Village an emergency decree to open the shelter.
The community has since been vocal in challenging the City’s decision to quietly put a shelter in an area already burdened with some of the most overcrowded hospitals and schools in New York.
Hundreds of Elmhurst residents calling for the shelter to be shut down gathered on the lawn outside the Elks Lodge in the early evening, where inside, Community Board 4 was holding a public hearing on the shelter with elected officials, community members and representatives from the Dept. of Homeless Services and Samaritan Village, which runs the shelter.
The protesters faced a group of counter-protesters from the shelter, booing and shouting. One child waved a sign reading “2, 4, 6, 8, who do we NOT appreciate? Hobos, hobos!” The counter-protest group, which grew in about an hour from eight individuals to roughly two dozen, consisted mostly of shelter residents with children, alongside some community advocates. Michael West lives in the Pan American shelter with his wife Lale West and five-month-old son.
“She’s working, I’m working, we’re doing what we got to do to get the money up so we can get our apartment,” West said. “Everybody’s working to get out right now.” DHS statistics indicate that the number of people in homeless shelters has risen steadily since 2012. According to Lorraine Stephens, first deputy commissioner of the DHS, there are currently 54,000 individuals in City shelters, 11,000 of which are families. Stephens called homelessness a City-wide crisis and said the DHS is not sure what is causing it.
Some of the shelter protesters’ sentiments were echoed during the hearing inside. One speaker who did not identify herself said, “long-term residents of Elmhurst, Queens have worked long hours and we’re motivated to have a roof over our heads” while others get a “free ride” and “free pass.” Resident Regina Quiet said she has seen people skulking outside and followed them to the shelter. “Our crime has already started going up, you have no control over them,” she said. “Half those people need to get up off their fat butts and get a job.”
According to Deputy Inspector Ronald Leyson, the 110th precinct has seen no uptick in crime that it can attribute to the shelter, and does not expect to. Odette Lupis came to the hearing from Astoria to speak out for the shelter’s residents. “I’m looking for work, and as everybody who’s looking for work knows, you don’t find it when you need it. So I could be your next homeless person,” she said.
After the hearing, Councilman Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) said that “many of those questions and the characterizations of the people [in the shelter] that some of the people had here tonight, those questions could have been answered had [DHS and Samaritan Village] notified the community in advance.” The number that they’re asking to put in here, without any additional services to the community, is unacceptable,” Dromm added.
Resident Jenny Shao distinguished between laying fault on the residents of the shelter and on the DHS and Samaritan Village. “Homeless people, we do need to support them. But is putting a shelter in Pan Am the right support that they need?” Show asked. “I work at a school where I don’t even have money to buy textbooks. So what are you doing for our schools? You want the children to go to our schools, and I want the children to go to our schools. So what are you doing for us?”
Shao also blasted the DHS for putting a shelter in “a community of immigrants who often don’t have a voice.”
Ivelisse Torres is a shelter resident who works in retail. “We’re here because they’re against us,” Torres said. “They’re saying we don’t have jobs. Majority of us have jobs, they just don’t want us there.” “They don’t know us, they don’t know what we’ve been through, they just don’t want us there,” Torres added.
Reach Jackie Strawbridge at (718) 357-7400, Ext. 128, firstname.lastname@example.org or @JNStrawbridge.