The battle of the homeless shelters marches on.
Community groups from Sunset Park and Queens gathered with victims of homelessness outside of Department of Social Services (DSS) Commissioner Steven Banks’ home in Windsor Terrace on Saturday, December 3 to protest the increasing number of homeless hotels in their neighborhoods and demand a solution.
“We are not here because we are against the homeless, because we feel for these people,” said attorney Delvis Valdes of the Village of Sunset Park, who stressed that some of the homeless people living in the shelters had “talked to us about the deplorable conditions that they have to live in.”
Valdes, who has attended many shelter protests and manages property in Sunset Park, discussed problems that have arisen from bringing homeless in the shelters as well as alternative solutions.
“Being warehoused in a hotel room is not a solution. As was said before, it is a Band Aid,” he said. “Paying $5,000 for a hotel room is a lot more expensive than giving then a voucher to go to a private apartment which would cost less than half the amount. They think that just by sweeping them off the sidewalk, so you don’t have to see them in subways and parks when you come home from work, that it’s taking care of the problem. It’s not.”
Richard Villar, also an attorney and member of the Village of Sunset Park, agreed, contending, “There’s only going to be more shelters coming and more people building hotels,” he said. “Not only are these developers building hotels and converting them to shelters, but the people that are running the shelters like Samaritan Village in Sunset Park are making a ton of money.”
Villar mentioned the recent discovery that a sex offender was being housed at the former Sleep Inn, 247 49th Street. “Samaritan Village said that there are no sex offenders living there so they lie; they want to keep these people in,” he said. “We also know from a resident of the same shelter, Amado Cartagena, that they move them around. There’s a law you can only be in a shelter for six to 12 months so after 12 months, [the homeless residents] are moved to another shelter. They want to keep these guys in because they’re making so much money.”
“I’ve been in Sunset Park for over 30 years and in that time, I might have seen two hotels, at best, open in 30 years. Now, in the last five years, we’ve had close to a dozen hotels open up in Sunset Park, and there’s another under construction now, right in front of the 72nd Precinct,” added Valdes. “You tell me that they are for tourists!”
Members of Elmhurst United also had a strong showing. “Warehousing 800 people in small rooms in the Pan American Hotel is shameful,” said John Schaffer of the group. “Warehousing homeless people without even providing them with the services to get back on their feet is disgraceful. Warehousing families with small children right next to level three registered sex offenders is absolutely reprehensible. Why does de Blasio fail to understand this?
“This is not helping the homeless and it is only encouraging developers and property owners to build more hotels and motels to convert into shelters instead of building residential housing which is what we need,” he added. “Look at what is happening in Maspeth, Sunset Park, Jamaica and Elmhurst.”
“We are here because our property is losing value,” added Phil Wong of Elmhurst United. “Meanwhile, the homeless are not getting help. We have people with mental health issues that just classify as homeless; we have drug addicts that classify as homeless; we have veterans classified as homeless; and they need help.”
Residents also spoke of the hardships of living in the shelters. “I’ve worked my whole life and I have a handicapped son that comes first,” said shelter resident Samantha. “When I went through my divorce, I couldn’t afford anything. I wound up where I am. Because of my son’s condition, he needs stability, but at any given time, they can knock on my unit door and tell me it’s time for me to go. Where’s the stability in that?”
The city defended its approach when contacted by this newspaper. “This administration believes that every community must share responsibility in housing homeless New Yorkers, and because the most effective tool against homelessness is preventing it in the first place, we’ve increased the number of tenants who’ve avoided eviction by 24 percent,” responded Aja Worthy-Davis, a spokesperson for the mayor in a statement. “An additional 45,000 residents have either exited or avoided shelter through our programs, and we’re building new affordable apartments in Sunset Park such as the Sunset Park Library project through partnerships with local elected officials.”