On July 9, without any head's up to elected officials or the community, the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) approved the conversion of the building on Astoria Boulevard into a permanent shelter for over 100 homeless families, effective immediately.
The decision elicited immediate backlash from the community, which was outraged over the lack of transparency from DHS.
Elected officials wrote a letter to DHS Commissioner Gilbert Taylor on June 14 expressing their concerns. Congressman Joseph Crowley, Councilman Costa Constantinides, State Senator Jose Peralta and Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas all signed it.
“We are deeply troubled by this decision and find it disturbing that neither elected officials nor community leaders were informed or consulted beforehand,” the letter read. “While we appreciate that DHS is legally required to provide shelter for the homeless, the agency’s failure to provide any notification to the people currently living in the area who are impacted by its implementation is unacceptable.”
The letter also addressed concerns about the suitability of the location for a shelter, citing the already-stretched capacity of schools and hospitals in the area.
“We anticipate that the addition of more than 100 homeless families will have a significant effect on local social services that are already overburdened,” the letter read.
For its part, DHS cited a record high of 54,439 homeless people in the city, almost 75 percent of which are families with children and 45 percent of which are children under the age of 18.
“The city is facing a record census of homeless families and individuals,” a statement from DHS read. “It is regrettable that in the midst of an increase in the number of homeless families entering shelters, our partners in government choose to distort the facts and plan protests in front of men, women, and children with no where else to turn.
“We hope others find it in themselves to embrace these families with children as we help them to rebuild their lives,” the statement continued.
Astoria is not the first Queens neighborhood to protest the sudden introduction of a homeless shelter. Residents of Glendale have been fighting a proposed homeless shelter in a former manufacturing building for months, while Elmhurst locals were outraged at the recent conversion of the 216-room Pan Am Hotel on Queens Boulevard into a shelter.
In each instance, local residents claim that they were uninformed of the planned shelter and were blindsided when the plans went ahead without any community discussion.
City Comptroller Scott Stringer took note of the reoccurring issue and took matters into his own hands, sending DHS a letter calling for a “robust consultative process” in all future shelter plans that allows “for meaningful input from local stakeholders, advocacy groups and elected officials.”
“Time and time again, I have seen communities that were traditionally welcoming of shelter facilities and supportive housing react negatively to a rushed DHS placement due to a failure to consider either legitimate potential neighborhood impacts or the health of the families the residences are intended to support,” Stringer wrote.
He also noted that the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) reported in 2013 that homelessness has declined nine percent nationwide since 2007, but in New York City, it has risen over 51 percent in that same time period.
“Many diverse causes contribute to the shocking rise of homelessness in New York City, but one thing is certain, the current playbook for dealing with homelessness in the five boroughs is failing,” he said.
To address this discrepancy, Stringer also recommended that DHS create programs to reduce the number of people in need of transitional housing.
A representative from DHS released a statement in response to Stringer’s letter.
“The administration is unconditionally committed to honoring its mandate to provide quality shelter to homeless New Yorkers in need,” it read. “Many of them are hard working parents with children unable to make ends meet in an increasingly unequal economy. We hope we can work together with all elected officials to provide timely and respectful assistance to the hundreds of families that will seek shelter this summer.”