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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Smiley (An Audio Story in NYC)

chelsea-piers

Last semester, I started getting getting more interested in audio stories — podcasts, radio, you name it.

For our first audio assignment, we had to go around and interview strangers on the streets of New York about their summer (yes, I know it’s hard to contemplate blissfully sunny days in the midst of this winter chill, but bear with me). As you can imagine, drawing a coherent story out of a complete stranger was not an easy task. It was the usual midst of angst, rejection, and bizarrely inappropriate encounters.

But then, I met a wonderful stranger on a park bench named Smiley. He told me about his love affair over the summer with Chelsea Piers. Here’s Smiley’s story:

https://soundcloud.com/podforum/yarlagadda-tara-smiley