Shelter opponents in Maspeth said last week that they’re changing up the strategy in their fight against City Hall. They voted to no longer protest in front of the Holiday Inn Express in Maspeth, but instead direct their attention at the homes of the business partners of New Ram Realty, which owns the hotel.
“We realized that we were keeping paying customers away from the hotel, which in turn freed up more rooms for DHS to rent,” said Robert Holden, president of the Juniper Park Civic Association. “By bringing the protests to the doorsteps of Harshad Patel and his cronies, we will let them know that we are not backing down until they end their relationship with the city and Acacia Network.”
Protesters from Maspeth, Sunset Park and other neighborhoods angry at the continued usage of hotels as homeless shelters brought their frustrations on Saturday afternoon to Windsor Terrace, the quiet Brooklyn neighborhood where DHS Commissioner Steven Banks lives.
About 50 people armed with posters and bullhorns attended the rally. They criticized Banks, DHS and the de Blasio administration for failing to come up with solutions to the rising homeless crisis.
“Being warehoused in a hotel room is not a solution, this is a Band-Aid,” said Delvis Valdes, an attorney and co-counsel of the Village of Sunset Park. “The amount of money we pay this government with our tax dollars, you’d think they’d come up with some intelligent people to come up with solutions.”
Valdes, who has lived in Sunset Park for three decades, harped on the exploding costs of the shelter system. He argued that giving vouchers for private apartments would be a less costly way to house the homeless.
“If a person came with a city voucher, we could get them a two-bedroom apartment complete with their own private bathroom, their own kitchen,” he said, “to give them the semblance of dignity to try to get back on their feet.
“This nonsense has got to stop, he’s not going to listen to us,” Valdes said about de Blasio. “He needs to be taken out of office. When he goes, it’ll be a clean sweep.”
Michael Conigliaro, who recently lost a bid for a State Senate seat, said there are viable solutions, such as bringing back Section 8 housing, fixing up abandoned city-owned property and using faith-based shelters. He accused de Blasio of not listening to options because “he doesn’t care.”
“Anyone in the system right now Mayor de Blasio thinks he’s helping, he’s not helping them, he’s helping himself,” Conigliaro said. “He cares about making sure he gets people off the streets and into hotels, and all that’s doing is hurting those people and increasing the number of people who are homeless.
“All the people that are in the shelter system now will see they can assimilate into neighborhoods and not be treated as if they’re criminals or animals because they’re not,” Conigliaro added. “That’s the stigma this man across the street, Banks, and the mayor have made for these people who are just working to get their lives back on track.”
Rafael Vargas, a resident of South Jamaica, also attended the protest. He was angry that a hotel is being built right in the middle of their community and next to schools. He noted that the neighborhood already has about 40 shelters around them.
“We know what’s coming,” Vargas said, alluding to the suspicion that it’ll be soon used as a shelter. “If you want to build a hotel in my community, you first have to build a hotel across your house. Do not do it in my community, we have our fill.”
At the rally, protesters invited people currently in the shelter system to share their stories. Stephanie Morales, who has been homeless for more than a year with her son, said all she wants is a fair chance.
“I just want to get back on my feet. I have fallen into a circumstance where life has thrown me a curveball that I couldn’t catch,” Morales said. “I want to go back to work. I want to be able to have my own place, pay my own rent and not have to live on public assistance.”
Morales, who has a son with disabilities, said after her divorce they couldn’t afford everything alone. That’s how she wound up in the shelter system. She said she’s not happy where she is, but there’s only “so much I can do.”
“DHS needs to step up their game and do their job and they’re not,” she said. “At any given time, they can come knock on my unit or tell me it’s time to go, where’s the stability in that? They’re supposed to help accommodate people.”
Aaron Irizarry, who lived in a shelter in Queens, described living with bed bugs, roaches and meals that gave him food poisoning. Now that he’s living in the Bronx, he said he’s living rodent-free and eating healthy.
“[It’s] because of me and my own efforts, not because of DHS,” Irizarry said. “You’re actually aggravating DHS and Steve Banks. Steve Banks is getting shaken up and scared. He ain’t bothering me no more.”
The protest concluded with a speech by Curtis Sliwa, founder of the Guardian Angels and a radio host. He derided de Blasio as a “part-time mayor” and a “pay-for-play guy,” mocking the separate investigations probing the mayor’s fundraising practices.
Sliwa, who has admitted that he’s contemplating challenging de Blasio next year, also went after Banks, whom he called a “puppet” for the mayor.
“Let’s get rid of this dope from Park Slope once and for all,” Sliwa said.
DHS spokesperson Lauren Gray said that while hotels are not a suitable long-term solution, for some New Yorkers, it’s the only immediate alternative to the street.
“We’ve moved nearly 50,000 people from shelter to housing and prevented tens of thousands more from losing their homes,” Gray said. “To address a problem that has built up over many years, we are building 200,000 units of affordable housing and developing a fair, comprehensive shelter plan to meet this citywide problem.”