Maspeth: a community in uproar over a homeless shelter exposes issues with New York City policies

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[Image credit: Gothamist.com]

Note: I this article wrote some months ago regarding the dicey situation surrounding a rising homeless population in the city of New York, beleaguered state and city housing policies, and a homeless shelter that raised the ire of a community in Queens. Although I didn’t get around to publishing it at the time, I thoroughly enjoyed reporting on this story, and so I thought I would share it on this blog. For a more recent update on what’s going on in with the shelter in Maspeth, click here.

December 13, 2016

By Tara Yarlagadda

It’s a dreary day; rain floods the sidewalks and slides down the neon signs along Queens Boulevard. Yet, the gloomy weather does nothing to dampen the spirited cries of middle-class residents in Maspeth, Queens.

A heated community board meeting is underway at Our Lady of Hope Catholic Academy in Middle Village – a residential neighborhood bordering Maspeth, Queens. The topic of debate: a proposed homeless shelter that nearly made the town of Maspeth lose its mind, and in the process, underscored a city-wide crisis with policy failures at all levels of government.

According to Lauren Gray, Senior Advisor for Communication for the New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS), the DHS notified Council Member Elizabeth Crowley in May regarding plans to convert the newly constructed Holiday Inn Express Queens–Maspeth into a homeless shelter for adult families. Council Member Crowley is the elected representative on the New York City Council for Community Board 5, which includes Maspeth.

Despite vociferous complaints from Maspeth residents, Gray insists that there has been ample community engagement in the process: “The Department of Homeless Services also hosted two community forums, which were attended by Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks to personally listen to community concerns and respond to questions.”

But those breadcrumbs were not enough to satisfy Maspeth. Residents protested in a nightly vigil at the Holiday Inn Express and even once outside of the home of Commissioner Banks, who heads the DHS. Protestors wielded posters with slogans like “Solutions not shelters” and images of Banks with the phrase: “Fire the liar.” For residents of Maspeth, this might as well be the controversy of the century.

The Juniper Park Civic Association in Middle Village criticizes Council Member Crowley for not being adequately supportive of the residents protesting the shelter. Manuel Caruana is a member of the Executive Board of the Juniper Park Civic Association. Of Crowley, Caruana says: She’s a liar. She should have been thrown out of office years ago. …This is her modus operandi. I’ve seen her do it over and over again. She’ll cut a deal and then she’ll make believe she’s fighting for you while her deal is cut.”

Still, Crowley’s Communications Director, Maggie Hayes, insists that Crowley has supported Maspeth’s opposition to the homeless shelter from the very beginning. Moreover, she states: “Elizabeth remains compassionate to the homeless…and is more concerned on creating a stable, productive environment to help them get back on their feet…”

Despite her tenuous support, Council Member Crowley, along with other elected officials, filed a lawsuit in August in the New York State Supreme Court, alleging that the proposed shelter violated New York City Administrative Code 21-124b. The code states that “no homeless shelter shall be established which does not provide…cooking facilities.” The Holiday Inn does not have cooking facilities.

The defendants, the city of New York and Commissioner Banks, quickly launched a counterattack, mounting a defense that only adult families will be placed in the Holiday Inn shelter, and cooking facilities are only required in shelters with families with children.

In addition to the lawsuit, concerns have erupted over the shelter potentially becoming what New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer referred to at the community board meeting as a “roach hotel.” The Comptroller’s office conducted a city audit in 2015 of homeless shelters for families with children, finding that conditions in many homeless shelters across the city were deplorable due to lax security and an utter lack of regulation on the part of the city.

Ironically, both homeless advocates and residents disapprove of the use of hotels for homeless shelters. Giselle Routhier is Policy Director for the Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy organization and the court-appointed monitor of the single adult shelter system in New York. Routhier says that although the city has made use of hotels for shelters, hotels are “…definitely not the most optimal location,” stating that there are generally issues with providing services – such as mental health and employment assistance – in these facilities.

Caruano insists that his opposition to the shelter stems not from a hatred of homeless individuals, but rather, the moral quandary of housing families in a single hotel room, which he decries as “unconscionable.”

So, the ethics of housing individuals in hotels is indeed a dicey matter that raises broader policy questions for a city struggling to find sufficient space to shelter its homeless population. However, the actual conflict in Maspeth might be more primal: outsiders versus insiders.

While chatting about the people who might reside in the shelter, Caruana says something that belies his prior goodwill: “There’s no public transportation. There’s no way these people are going to go out and get jobs. There’s nothing to do but for them to wander through the streets of Maspeth causing problems. People don’t know who they are – this is a very tight-knit community. They see a stranger walking around the neighborhood, they’re going to get scared. Why are you scaring the community this way? There’s no need for that.”

In that sense, what’s going on in Maspeth is a time-old dilemma: residents that want to be left in peace, and outside forces that are determined to break their idyllic bubble for the greater good.

There are currently no homeless shelters in Community Board 5, where Maspeth is located, but the de Blasio administration is trying to change that, perhaps futilely so.

According to a press release by the New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS) in September, the de Blasio administration has “implemented an unprecedented array of programs designed to prevent homelessness and move adults and children out of shelter,” thereby preventing 7,000 New Yorkers from becoming homeless.

Among these new policies is a borough-based approach, in which homeless individuals and families should be given temporary shelter in their home boroughs, so as to better foster community ties and ease the transition into permanent housing.

As a result, Mayor de Blasio has made pronounced efforts to establish more homeless shelters in Queens, including the proposed shelter in Maspeth. Many Queens locals take issue with this new policy. Karla Leone, a resident of Jackson Heights, speaks to the increase in shelters:

“We already have two shelters and going on a third [in Jackson Heights]. It’s terrible. They’re like one hotel that my dad used to work in. They fired my dad, they fired a whole bunch of workers, and they opened a homeless shelter…Not only does it devalue the houses, but it makes our neighborhood dangerous.”

In spite of the glowing statistics published by the DHS, the situation is pretty bleak. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, as of August 2016, there were more than 60,000 homeless individuals in the shelter system. This is up from 38,000 individuals in 2010 – a shocking increase in just six years.

The average length of stay for a family with children also increased over the past decade to 412 days in August. And it seems the city is largely unable to meet the growing demands on the shelter system. During the week of September 5, according to a document filed by the city in the lawsuit, the vacancy rate in the city shelter system was below zero.

Yet, why is there such a growing demand for homeless shelter services? According to Caruana, the current situation is a result of New York State’s right to shelter policies, which require New York to provide emergency shelter to homeless individuals.

Caruana alleges that this has caused thousands from across the country to flock to New York, overwhelming the city’s homeless shelters: He says: “New York taxpayers are carrying the burden for all the states in this country that are sending their homeless to us. Prior administrations gave them a bus ticket back to where they came from. [Mayor de Blasio] is welcoming them…I tell you what: my grandson could do a better job.”

It’s a common myth, and one that the Coalition for the Homeless roundly disputes. According to the Coalition, less than one-half of one percent of all families placed in the New York City shelter system is from out-of-town. Many of them are from neighboring Long Island or New Jersey.

Routhier offers a more nuanced explanation, rooted in city policies and state and federal disinvestment from affordable housing over the past decade. It starts with then-Mayor Bloomberg’s slashing of priority affordable housing for the homeless in 2005, and becomes more pronounced when the state cuts funding for the Advantage program – which provides subsidies for up to two years to assist people in renting housing – in 2011. Routhier adds: “…. there was essentially no way for families to move out of the shelter system. A huge spike in homelessness followed.”

There are some positives: Routhier lauds the de Blasio administration for reinstating priority access for homeless individuals to section 8 public housing, which provides assistance to low-income families to rent in the private housing market. She also praises the administration for introducing “city-initiated periods of rent subsidies that have thus far been absent” among previous administration’s homeless policies.

The city could allocate a larger portion of public housing for homeless individuals. Yet the blame doesn’t rest solely on the city’s shoulders, said Routhier: “Both the state and federal [government] also need to step up” in providing resources for homeless services and affordable housing. According to Routhier, two billion dollars allocated for affordable housing have been left unused in Governor Cuomo’s budget.

In this citywide housing crisis, advocates on both sides pressure the city for the need to transition people out of the shelter system and into permanent, more affordable housing. The culmination of these policies ties back to Maspeth.

Ultimately, the initial legal fight over the proposed shelter has seemingly ended in a stalemate with a press statement from Commissioner Banks in October: “The owner of the Maspeth Holiday Inn refused to allow the city to convert the hotel into a shelter. Instead, the hotel owner agreed to rent rooms to help keep homeless New Yorkers off the street, and the city has done so.”

But wrinkles continued to develop as reports emerge that the proposed homeless shelter is under attack by a second lawsuit – this time by the holding company that owns the land on which the Holiday Inn Express sits – which could hinder the city’s efforts to house homeless individuals there.

Still, without conversion into a formal homeless shelter, the social services that such a hotel could provide to the homeless individuals that it houses is undoubtedly limited. And so, no one wins – the administration, Maspeth, and especially not the homeless.

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Real Talk Book Review: Why Wuthering Heights is one of the most messed up books I’ve read…ever. But it’s worse in this political climate.

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[Image credit: Wuthering-heights.co.uk]

Happy 200th death-i-versary, Jane Austen! I feel my high school erred in adequately prepping me to become a Jane-ite. I read not one, not two, but FIVE Shakespeare plays in the course of my high school education, yet not a single Austen or Brontë novel. Come to think of it, most of the other esteemed, literary books I read in K-12 (with a few exceptions, like the iconic Toni Morrison) were written by old and/or dead white men. Hopefully high school curriculum has diversified since then, though I wouldn’t hold my breath. Anyway, I came to love Austen in my early twenties, in addition to other fantastic writers of the 1800s such as Charlotte Brontë, the well-regarded author of Jane Eyre.

Having long been a Jane Eyre fan, I thought it only fair that I give the other famous Brontë sister, Emily, a chance and read her most famous (and only novel) to-date: Wuthering Heights.

Oh boy. I’m not sure I regret reading Wuthering Heights, but this might be one of the most messed-up books I’ve read of all time. Upon finishing the book, I actually sat silent in bed for several minutes, trying to process the gravity of all that I’d read.

Heathcliff, the leading male character and “love interest” of leading lady Catherine Earnshaw, AKA Cathy, is one of the most disturbing characters I’ve ever glimpsed on the page. And I’m a fan of the true crime genre and have read up on the likes of H.H Holmes (read Devil in the White City), so I know what I’m talking about. He is evil embodied in human form. Sure, he was abused severely as a child, and I know Brontë is trying to make a point about how our environment molds us into the terrifying adults we grow up to be, yada, yada, yada but that doesn’t make it any more enjoyable to read. Take a look at the quote below, when Heathcliff refers to his new wife, Isabella Linton, a woman he not only does not love, but hates with an intensity that shocks the senses.

“The first thing she saw me do, on coming out of the Grange, was to hang up her little dog; and when she pleaded for it, the first words I uttered were a wish that I had the hanging of every being belonging to her, except one: possibly she took that exception for herself. But no brutality disgusted her: I suppose she has an innate admiration of it, if only her precious person were secure from injury!…If she desired to go, she might: the nuisance of her presence outweighs the gratification to be derived from tormenting her!”

Now, Heathcliff hates Isabella primarily because she has the misfortune of being the wrong person. Her only crime is that she is not the only person he has ever cared about or desired in this world: his supposed soulmate and once-upon-a-time childhood friend, Catherine. Catherine similarly loves Heathcliff, for reasons I cannot fathom other than he is apparently her ‘soulmate.’ God. Now I get why all the Twilight kids used to love Wuthering Heights. Edward and Bella are the modern day version of Heathcliff and Catherine, though unfortunately, unlike their English predecessors, they do not meet an untimely death. Young adult literature would be so much better for it if they had.

Twilight cover image

[Image credit: IMDB.com]

Normally, my motto is that truth is stranger than fiction, but in the case of Wuthering Heights, I’m prepared to throw that slogan out the window. How Brontë, a sheltered clergyman’s daughter, came up with this shockingly abusive, demented character is beyond me. Moreover, she decided to pair him with Catherine, a wholly selfish young woman who had little regard for anyone’s feelings but her own. Despite loving Heathcliff, she says that marrying him would bring her status down in society, causing him to run away for three years before he returns to her — at which point, she is already married to her other childhood friend, Edward Linton (and also pregnant with his child). Most of the time she regards her husband as a nuisance, if an unfailingly kind one. Here is how she speaks to him after he rightfully criticizes his wife for receiving Heathcliff into their home:

“Have you been listening at the door, Edgar?” asked the mistress, in a tone particularly calculated to provoke her husband, implying both carelessness and contempt of his irritation.

Catherine was not merely someone who had no hope of inspiring Heathcliff to better himself, but also someone who would only impel him to give in to his most violent vices. It was a match made in hell. See how Heathcliff refers to his ‘beloved’ after he’s gotten into an altercation with her “lamb” of a husband:

“I wish you joy of the milk-blooded coward, Cathy!” said her friend. ‘I compliment you on your taste. And that is the slavering, shivering, thing you preferred to me! I would not strike him my fist, but I’d kick him with my foot, and experience considerable satisfaction. Is he weeping, or is he going to faint for fear?”

I digress. There are too many ‘Heathcliff is a sadistic asshole’ quotes for me to list them all for you.

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[Image credit: IMDB.com]

But I have to give Bronte credit for creating incredibly unlikeable characters and sticking to her guns in following their miserable stories through to the end. As an aspiring novelist, I’m definitely taking notes. I mean, can you imagine the kind of shocked reception this book must have received in seventeenth-century England? I’m sure the editing world was shocked and scandalized by the “immoral” nature of the book and its inhabitants. I figure that Brontë imagined such a reaction, and so she actually initially published the book under a male pseudonym (though a lot of that was probably because discrimination against female authors was still very prevalent at the time — and still is to this day, in some literary circles).

And also, Bronte perfected the literary device of using weather and geography to mirror the turbulent human condition. Pretty sure they teach Brontë in all those fancy creative writing classes in college that I never took. Check out the great paragraph below:

“It was a very dark evening for summer: the clouds appeared inclined to thunder, and I said we had better all sit down; the approaching rain would be certain to bring him home without further trouble. However, Catherine would not be persuaded into tranquility. She kept wandering to and fro, from the gate to the door, in a state of agitation which permitted no repose; and at length took up a permanent situation on one side of the wall, near the road: where, heedless of my expostulations and the growling thunder, and the great drops that began to plash around her, she remained, calling at intervals, and then listening, and then crying outright.”

But more than the actual story, I find it interesting to read Wuthering Heights during this political climate. I know, eyeroll. “You can’t link everything to Trump!” I know you can’t, but I’m sure going to try.

Seriously though, it’s hard not to find parallels everywhere. We have a man that openly bragged about sexual assault who is now our president. Heathcliff, a violently abusive blowhard (and likely rapist), is considered in some circles to be merely a tormented, tragically romantic soul. Give me a break. There is a whole set of characters in Wuthering Heights, too many characters with the same first and last names, and a very confusing family tree that may or may bear some traces of incest (?). I’ll spare you all that, but just to know that pretty much every single one of these characters is mercilessly tormented by Heathcliff throughout the course of the book, including his own beloved’s daughter, who is also named Catherine. Heathcliff forces her to marry his son under a series of very spurious, and most likely, illegal conditions. Thankfully, Heathcliff ultimately passes into the netherworld to join his dear Cathy in death, leaving some semblance of peace for the souls who he tortured for so long on these dark and gloomy moors.

Beyond the fact that misogynistic men can rise to influential positions, whether those be in the White House or in the moors of rural England, violence against women is nothing new.  But it seems like every day, I see articles on my Facebook newsfeed about women being stalked, raped, bludgeoned and killed, often by their spouses or partners. The summer before I moved to New York, three female joggers were killed in the span of a few weeks while running near their homes. I read just an article today about a woman whose ex-boyfriend progressively stalked her before hiring a third party to dump toxic acid all over her body, leaving her permanently scarred. It’s enough to make a modern lady dump all dating apps in the garbage and live the life of a solitary hermit.

Normally, I don’t mind bleak literature. Hell, the darker, the better. I’m a Game of Thrones fan, after all. But when I’m reminded day in and day out of how being a woman in this world is a frightening thing, sometimes I just need a respite from that in my literature and television. True, Heathcliff torments men and women alike. But in Wuthering Heights, the women are held captive — in one case, literally — to particularly violent fates at the hands of this tormentor. With all this being said, I’d sooner place Wuthering Heights in the horror category than the romance aisle.

For that reason — and also, because to be honest I find Emily Bronte’s writing style exhausting and dull — I’m not sure if I’ll pick up Wuthering Heights anytime soon. But what the story reveals about the depravity of the human condition — that will stick me for a long time. The soulmate thing? Ehh, not so much.

Review: 3/5 stars

Real Talk Book Review: ‘Hunger’ made me think deeply about the world as Roxane Gay lives in it – and about my own fatphobia

Roxane Gay Hunger

(Image credit: Amazon.com)

“I do not know why I turned to food. Or I do. I was lonely and scared and food offered an immediate satisfaction. Food offered comfort when I needed to be comforted and did not know how to ask for what I needed from those who loved me. Food tasted good and made me feel better. Food was the one thing within my reach.”

There was a lot I couldn’t relate to in renowned author Roxane Gay’s new book, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. As it well should be.  I have never lived in Gay’s body. Only she has. But the paragraph above hit the nail on the head for me–in a way that I didn’t expect.

I have been fat on and off for the better part of my life, and I still struggle with my weight to this day. As a child, I would gaze down at my thunder thighs with their running lines of cellulite, and imagine what it would be like if a meat cleaver could somehow bloodlessly slice my jiggling fat away. I would huff and puff as I struggled to finish the standard one mile run in fifth grade gym class, clocking in at eleven minutes or more when most classmates finished around eight minutes or fewer. I would be tormented endlessly for my weight, sometimes by other schoolkids, sometimes by friends, and oftentimes by my own relatives.  I loved food, and it loved me back. But it was (some days, still is) also my worst enemy.

And please note, when I’m using the term ‘fat’ here, it’s not as a pejorative. I think of it as classification of one’s body type, and should be no more considered an insult than words like thin, skinny, tall, short, etc. Although I realize that that’s far from the case in the real world, though movements centered around fat positivity are trying to re-embrace the word.

Anyway, this book review is more than just a critical analysis of Hunger: it’s also a time for me to take stock of my own internalized fatphobia.

I think the latter half of the book’s title (A Memoir of [My] Body) is so key. My Body. Because Gay’s perspective truly is her own. She doesn’t represent all fat people — nor does she claim to do so. I’ve never been deemed ‘morbidly obese’ by the medical community. I’ve never sat in a chair and worried that it would break under my weight. And although I’ve ridden on planes as a child with my now-deceased, obese grandmother, and witnessed the ridicule she bore when she required seat belt extensions, I’ve never borne the brunt of that gaze myself. All of these are the small, everyday humiliations that Gay endures and speaks to in Hunger.

And when I put aside my own reflections, I was able to see Gay’s perspective as one that was totally separate, heartbreaking and utterly unrelatable to my own. I was able to see how different someone’s relationship to food could be from my own. Although Gay and I both sought comfort in food, mine was borne primarily of a hearty appetite and perhaps, earlier on in my life, some low self-esteem issues. I had never thought about how a deep-seated trauma like that Gay endured — she was gang-raped by her boyfriend and his friends at the age of twelve and kept that secret close to her chest — could lead someone to seek solace in food. She associated being pretty with being thin, and thus, being susceptible to the unwanted advance of young men like those who sexually assaulted her. And so, she built a cage out of her body in order to keep the touch of men like those who raped her far, far away.

I ate and ate and ate in the hopes that if I made myself big, my body would be safe. I buried the girl I was because she ran into all kinds of trouble. I tried to erase every memory of her, but she is still there, somewhere. . . . I was trapped in my body, one that I barely recognized or understood, but at least I was safe.

She writes poignantly about the sexual assault in a way that makes your heart ache and want to hug teenage Gay. But really,  it’s the aftereffects of the rape and everything that followed which makes Hunger so powerful.

And part of its power was in forcing me to resist my own impulses as a (formerly) fat person to talk back when Gay narrates parts of her experience that are foreign to me. When she mentions doctors who dismiss her other valid health concerns and just tell her to lose weight. When she mentions strangers taking items out of her grocery cart. When she talks about how chairs with arm rests painfully constrict her form. When she rolls her eyes at women like me who are have only ever been twenty or thirty pounds overweight. When she mentions that staff at Housing Works — a local New York nonprofit bookstore where I occasionally volunteer, in full disclosure — failed to take into account her physical needs for an event at which she was speaking. Gay struggled to climb onto a stage and then hover above a chair that could not accommodate her body for the entire event.

I learn to bite my tongue. I learn to listen. I learn to accept that the narratives of other fat people are different from my own. I understand my own internalized fatphobia and reluctance to embrace the fat-positive movement better.

But most importantly, I understand Roxane Gay’s story.  She has made her readership — which I presume is includes many thin women who have never known what it is like to be mocked for their body weight — understand what it means to be large in a society that deems her to be the Other. A thing to be ridiculed and mocked. She does this through sparse writing that sings. And that’s a powerful thing.

Book Review: 4/5 stars