Sitting across from them were three high school students who had collected basic necessities, wrapped them up into care packages and delivered them to the hotel. For more than an hour, alongside workers from the Department of Homeless Services (DHS), the youth chatted with the homeless men.
The charitable event was organized by 16-year-old Middle Village native Alfred Chan. He’s an intern and volunteer for City Mission, a religious nonprofit organization that helps immigrants and homeless residents throughout the city.
“Since I was very young, I thought we should all care for each other. We’re all humans on this planet,” Chan said. “The other thing that drives me is my faith. Not everyone is religious, but I am personally. I feel it’s my obligation to help people.”
City Mission started during the Elmhurst community’s fight against the conversion of the former Pan American Hotel into a homeless shelter several years ago. Led by founder Lester Lin, the organization has organized weekly tutoring sessions and regular events at the shelter, building relationships with homeless families in the meantime.
Chan started volunteering at that shelter two years ago. Every Thursday at 7 p.m., he goes to help the students with their homework. In October, City Mission also hosted a Halloween party there.
When he heard about the protests against the plan to open a homeless shelter in Maspeth, Chan wanted to organize an event in the neighborhood he calls his “local community.”
“I wanted to give back since I know there’s a shelter here and they’re not doing so hot because of the protesting,” he said. “I just wanted to bring this here to spread some love and joy, especially around this time.”
He recruited 30 of his fellow schoolmates to help out, including 17-year-old Ryan Chang from Elmhurst. Chang lives close to and actually witnessed the protests in front of the Pan Am, and thought the demonstrators were somewhat misguided.
“I think the protesters didn’t know what they were doing, I feel like it was more ignorance than hatred,” he said. “Many people feared the dangers of having a homeless shelter, but really there are no dangers because these homeless men and women are people, too.”
After learning about Chan’s initiative to donate goods to the 30 homeless men in Maspeth, Chang decided to help.
“We just wanted to show the men that there is support within the community,” he said. “Not everyone in the community hates this shelter.”
The care packages contained socks, shaving cream, snacks, a hat and other items. The kind gesture surprised Tyrone Burton, who has lived in the Holiday Inn Express for about a month.
“They took their time out here to support us, this is all good,” he said. “What makes you give up the time for us?”
Burton said he’s not at the shelter most of the time. He works from 4 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and when he gets off work, he usually has errands to run. The only complaint he had was the transportation, and in particular the difficulty with catching the buses.
“It’s not hard, I just make it day by day,” Burton said. “I got family, but they’re all spread around. They’re always in my heart, but I’ve just got to keep on.”
For Carl Brennan, who has lived in the shelter system for a year, being placed at the Holiday Inn Express was a “huge help.”
“I was thrown out on the streets, so it’s a huge relief to have support,” he said. “It’s a pretty good family here, they take care of us.
“The people that run the place are like big brothers and big sisters,” he added. “If you need anything, you just ask and they make it happen.”
Brennan, who suffered a broken neck a few years before moving to New York City from Salt Lake City, said he had hoped to start fresh. He had a hard time getting restarted, and ended up in the shelter system.
But now he’s having better luck finding employment and is now looking for a place to live through the city’s LINC program. He thanked the students for giving care packages to them.
“It’s kind of overwhelming and nice and unexpected, it’s really fantastic,” Brennan said. “It says a lot about this community and the kids.”
Tyrone Mapp, who ended up in the shelter system after spending time in prison, has lived in the Holiday Inn Express for more than a month. The 47-year-old Mapp, who was dressed in a suit last Thursday, said he likes this particular shelter because nearly all of the people are working.
Mapp himself works at the McDonald's down the street from the hotel. He has experience as an electrician and personal trainer, and also has a food protection certification from the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
“At my age, I've got a lot of skills in different fields like construction, carpentering, things like that,” Mapp said. “I’ve been fortunate because I haven’t had problems when it comes to employment. I’ve been unemployed for like two weeks at most in the last two years. My resume speaks for itself.”
Mapp’s family lives in another state. He said he’s waiting for his out-of-state transfer to be approved before he reunites with them. He’s looking to leave the shelter and return within the next two months.
He thanked the volunteers and DHS for “creating a path” and opportunities for people who are less fortunate.
“It really is beautiful. I’m just happy and feel appreciated that people will take time out to spread some love, especially during the holiday season,” Mapp said. “That’s a blessing in itself.”
Chan, who spoke to several of the men during the event, said he learned that despite the stereotypes about homeless people, they’re working people who are trying to help their families.
“They’re just trying to get through these times,” he said. “It’s not even that they’re bad people or anything, it’s just that New York’s pricing on housing is really high, and sometimes they just can’t afford it.
“What I also learned is that through all this, they’re still persevering and trying to make sure their kids go to school and they’re still on their jobs,” he added.
Chan said he hopes their volunteer efforts will change some minds in the community, especially those who oppose the homeless shelter.
“We’re all human beings here, we should all be compassionate towards each other,” Chan said. “Learn to deal with it, even if you hate it. Even if you have different views about this, let it go for this one time because it’s the holidays. This is about giving.”
He hopes it will have an impact on people his age, especially because homelessness is an ongoing citywide issue.
“Especially the people in my generation,” Chan said. “Hopefully this can empower other people to step up to make sure homelessness is not a problem in the future.”