About two years ago, the Pan Am Hotel on Queens Blvd was unexpectedly converted into a homeless shelter without community notification. Shortly thereafter, word came that the Maspeth Holiday Inn Express was for sale. I sent out an email sarcastically predicting it would become our next area homeless shelter. In my heart I was only half-joking because I could see the writing on the wall.
Word came to me about the proposed conversion of the Maspeth Holiday Inn Express into a homeless shelter while the secret meeting about it was underway the morning of August 3rd at the Maspeth Library, which was quite an interesting choice of venue. The meeting was among city and elected officials and the community board chair and district manager. It is interesting that so many “representatives” of our community knew about this meeting but failed to inform civic leaders about it. A few people who had heard a rumor about the meeting were allowed to attend. Meanwhile, the group looking to provide shelter services, Acacia Network, had posted a job listing for social workers in Maspeth well before the date of this meeting.
The first secret meeting
A clip of the last 5 minutes of the meeting has been circulating online. In it, Vincent Arcuri, Chairman of CB5, mentioned that the next regularly scheduled CB5 meeting would not happen until September 14th and that the community needed more time to become informed and study the issue. The city planned this entire thing during summer break so that the major civic players would be caught off guard.
The mayors' representatives insisted that the City has to “plan capacity”. Arcuri then pointed out that they are not “planning capacity” if they are moving people in the day it converts. In reality, there is no immediate need to shelter more people, but it helps Blasio's friends in the industry.
Assembly Member Marge Markey and State Senator Joe Addabbo remained mute during the meeting for some reason, and Addabbo got up and walked around a lot.
At one point prior to the start of the recording, an ultimatum was apparently issued where the City offered to shelve the Holiday Inn site in favor of an alternate proposal put forth by the community. The criteria for the replacement site are as follows: the site must have at least 35 rooms and be in move-in condition. There obviously is no location within CB5 for that and that was a disingenuous attempt at extending an olive branch.
On the recording, City Council Member Elizabeth Crowley stated, “As the council member that represents both Glendale and Maspeth, I feel that you are pitting one part of my district against another and I think that's unfair”. So does that mean that a swap deal was made as many have feared? She also demanded that the 60-day clock that the mayor's reps were threatening the community with be stopped, but instead of answering her, the city reps simply ended the meeting, stood up and walked out. At the very end, a spectator yelled out, “So is the clock ticking?” but there was no response from anyone.
I immediately notified the media before the meeting had ended about what was taking place. Meanwhile, the residents of Maspeth had turned to Facebook and other social media to express their outrage. The community board announced that they were scheduling a meeting for August 31st, but that was too far in the future for most people, so Mike LoCascio scheduled a meeting for August 11th at Martin Luther School. Crews of people spread the word online and via flyers around the neighborhood. It was the only thing people around town were talking about for a full week.
The night of August 11th was steamy. A strong, but short-lived lightning storm passed through the area around 6pm but the humidity and heat lingered. By 7:30 pm, the non-air conditioned Martin Luther gym was packed to the rafters with hot, angry taxpayers. There were hundreds more who could not fit inside. Council Member Elizabeth Crowley, State Senator Joseph Addabbo and State Assembly Member Margaret Markey all made an appearance, although only 2 of them stayed and spoke.
Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Steven Banks proceeded to tell the crowd that Maspeth would be getting a shelter for adult couples with the total occupancy being about 220 people. When challenged about why we should take on this burden, Banks claimed, “There are currently 243 people in the shelter system from Maspeth.” That set off a chorus of screaming and boos because this is patently false. Homeless census numbers that were obtained from the city via a Freedom of Information request during the Pan Am fight in 2014 showed 36 total people in the system that had listed their last address as being in Maspeth.
After Banks spoke, Council Member Elizabeth Crowley, who looked like a deer in the headlights when the enormous crowd initially jeered her, read from a prepared statement and said she was 100% opposed to the shelter. State Senator Joseph Addabbo said the same. Assembly Member Marge Markey never returned to MLS after telling meeting organizers that she was going home to change her clothes and would be back.
Dozens of people, one by one, then took to the microphone to ask questions of the commissioner and to express their anger. The commissioner was short on answers and kept a smug grin on his face for most of the night. The mayor’s representative, Lincoln Restler, sat with his head down and playing with his smartphone during the entire meeting. Acacia Network, the service provider, did not send a representative to answer questions, which was quite disrespectful.
Despite some of the media’s portrayal of Maspeth residents as uneducated yokels, the vast majority of people who came to the microphone made cogent arguments as to why this proposal was a bad idea and provided intelligent reasons for their opposition.
Several members of Elmhurst United expressed concern over a shelter in Maspeth due to their miserable experiences with the Pan Am Hotel. They detailed problems with crime, harassment, school overcrowding and mentioned that the Pan Am hotel owner is getting more than $3,000/month per room from the city to shelter homeless, not the paltry $1800/month that the DHS claims it will pay at the Holiday Inn Express. Phil Wong poignantly stated that the shelter provides segregation in what is otherwise a well-integrated, diverse community.
Tony Nunziato explained that it was unfair to warehouse hundreds of people with obvious problems in close quarters. He made what was perhaps the most on point statement of the night when he said that a facility from which the neighborhood needs protection in the form of a security patrol and added police manpower is something that is not welcome in Maspeth.
Manny Caruana pointed out that New York offers more freebies than anywhere else, which attracts people far and wide in a blatant abuse of the system.
Brian Barnwell, assembly candidate and attorney, explained how the electeds could file an injunction in court to stop the shelter and other ways to use the legal process to everyone’s advantage.
I myself pointed out the fact that most Maspeth residents live within a mile of at least one of the existing shelters in the area and we therefore are doing our fair share and are burdened enough.
The increased crime that these facilities bring and the stretching of our already thin police resources were common topics of concern. At one point, two young girls took to the microphone to say they wanted to be able to play in Maurice Park without worrying about sex offenders lurking there.
The first march
The crowd that was turned away at the door organized and marched down to the hotel site in protest. They entered the lobby and chanted. One man was given a summons for disorderly conduct after an altercation with police, but by and large the protest was forceful yet peaceful. It showed that Maspeth was not backing down. The protests at the hotel have taken place every weeknight since the shelter meeting. Michael Conigliaro, Republican candidate for State Senate, joined State Assembly candidates Tony Nunziato and Brian Barnwell, civic leaders and residents in calling for the deal to be shelved. No elected officials have attended the rallies despite several calls for them to do so. Shouldn’t they actually should be the ones leading the protests?
The real deal
The day after the Martin Luther meeting, the DHS told the media that the 243 figure they quoted relentless is actually for all of CB5, not just Maspeth. So in reality Maspeth is expected to be the sacrificial lamb for the entire community board. However, breaking down the numbers, it appears that most of the homeless from CB5 are families, meaning that multiple people would share single rooms at a shelter. In 2014, four families without children were from CB5, which makes it clear that just about all of the families to be housed at the Holiday Inn Express will be from outside CB5. This despite Mayor’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs Representative Lincoln Restler stating at the library meeting that the majority sheltered there would be former residents of our neighborhood. As a matter of fact, western Queens has more shelter rooms than homeless people, meaning that many of those residing in places like the Pan Am are from outside Queens. So which other community’s problem are we taking on?
The right to shelter
Approximately 25-30% of homeless are from outside NYC. They come from other communities in NY state, many are from other states all together and some are even from outside the country. Why has housing them become the NYC’s taxpayer’s burden? Why aren’t other municipalities being responsible for their own residents and are instead dumping them on us?
As I mentioned in the September 2014 issue of the Juniper Berry (“Homelessness is Big Business”), New York is a right-to-shelter state, meaning that you don't have to be a resident of NY State in order to ask for shelter here. However, most municipalities in the U.S. are not right-to-shelter. The total entitlement benefits package for NYC is one of the highest in the country, which entices people to move here to collect. In fact, people in other states are being sent into our shelter system via bus or plane tickets paid for by their hometowns. All of this could be changed via legislation but thus far the State legislature has lacked the will to do it. It would require a change to the state constitution after an affirmative vote by the people to hold a constitutional convention, followed up with legislation and a referendum. When the state pols ask for your vote this election season, respond by asking them what they have been doing to make sure this happens.
The phony progressivism
In the June 2016 Juniper Berry, I wrote an opinion piece entitled, “Bill de Blasio: Redefining Progressive”. To quote myself, “Under the guise of caring for people who are down and out, de Blasio throws millions at badly run charities which happen to be run by his friends. The homeless crisis has gotten more out of control under de Blasio than it ever was before, mainly due to liberalization of sound policies that had been in place previously, all for the benefit his shelter-owning donors.”
Acacia Network board members and the hotel owner are regular donors to de Blasio’s campaigns. They also have targeted Comptroller Scott Stringer, the person who authorizes the contracts that the city enters into with homeless shelter service providers.
The second march
There were daily protests on weeknights outside the Holiday Inn Express since the night of the meeting at Martin Luther School. State Senator Tony Avella from Bayside came out to support the protesters, but all of our local elected officials stayed away.
Then on Saturday, August 27th, 1,820 people (per an official NYPD head count) participated in the “March for Maspeth” a 5-mile trek which started at the hotel and then proceeded through the streets of Maspeth. Leading with a banner that read “Solutions Not Shelters” we closed down Grand Avenue, 69th Street, 53rd Drive and 63rd Street. Protesters were extremely angry that once again the only elected official to show up was Tony Avella, a representative of communities on the other side of Queens. Elizabeth Crowley, Joe Addabbo and Marge Markey were all no-shows. State Senate candidate Michael Conigliaro (running against Joe Addabbo), State Assembly candidates Tony Nunziato and Brian Barnwell (running against Marge Markey) and State Assembly candidate Joe Maldonado (running against Mike Miller) marched with us.
The route of the march included a visit to Marge Markey’s house and office. Since she refused to attend the protests, the protest was brought to her doorstep. Follow up events were planned to next take it to Gracie Mansion and outside the home of the owner of the Maspeth Holiday Inn Express, Harshad Patel, who has made a pretty penny off NYC taxpayers by converting several of his hotels into shelters over the years.
The second secret meeting
On August 30th, one night before the big meeting at the Knockdown Center, another secret meeting was held at O'Neill's Restaurant among the elected officials, members of the community board, Captain Wachter and Acacia Network to discuss the security plan for the shelter. When word got back to the protesting crowd assembled at the hotel, there was a march over the pedestrian bridge and up to the restaurant to confront them. But the police at the hotel had radioed ahead, the meeting broke up and the electeds and/or their reps vacated as quickly as possible. We found it very disconcerting that a meeting was held with the group we are trying to stop from opening a shelter in our area to discuss their security plan. That gives the appearance of throwing in the towel. The focus right now should be on preventing them from opening in the first place!
The big public meeting
The Knockdown Center was the venue for the “official” public meeting that was held about the proposed shelter. Once again, DHS Commissioner Stephen Banks addressed the crowd and was short on answers and long on bureaucrat-speak. He revealed nothing new about the proposal. Acacia Network did not have a representative in attendance to present their plans or answer questions. The police estimate that about 800 residents of Maspeth attended and they left not knowing any more than they had when they walked through the door earlier that night.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
The legal action
We started a GoFundMe page where donations are being collected to help mount a legal challenge. Although Council Member Crowley used her staffer to file an injunction against the shelter, we are planning to hire our own attorney to take legal action as well. There is too much at stake for us to rely on a questionable lawsuit. You may donate to this fund via this link: www.gofundme.com/noshelterinmaspeth.
Alternatively, you may write a check made out to “Citizens for a Better Maspeth” and drop it off at Enchanted Florist or mail it to:
Citizens for a Better Maspeth
c/o Tony Nunziato
65-10 Grand Ave
Maspeth, NY 11378
The phone calls and letters
Write letters and call the following every day:
Council Member Elizabeth Crowley, 71-19 80th Street, Suite 8-303, Glendale, NY 11385
Comptroller Scott Stringer, One Centre Street, New York, NY 10007
State Senator Joseph Addabbo, 66-85 73rd Place, Middle Village, NY 11379
Assembly Member Marge Markey, 55-19 69th Street, Maspeth, NY 11378
Assembly Member Cathy Nolan (West Maspeth), 47-40 21 Street Room 810, Long Island City, NY 11101
Congress Member Grace Meng, 118-35 Queens Boulevard, 17th Floor, Forest Hills, NY 11375
Borough President Melinda Katz, 120-55 Queens Blvd, Kew Gardens, NY 11424
Governor Andrew Cuomo, NYS State Capitol Building, Albany, NY 12224
Registered Democrats of Assembly District 30 have the chance to show one sitting elected official what they think about her performance on this issue on Primary Day, September 13th. Marge Markey is running against Brian Barnwell, who has attended every Juniper Park Civic Association meeting this past year, as well as every rally and public meeting about the shelter. The winner of that contest will meet Republican Tony Nunziato in the General Election on November 8th. Also, State Senator Joseph Addabbo meets Republican challenger Michael Conigliaro in the General Election.
It is imperative that all registered voters express themselves in the voting booth this fall. The future of Maspeth is hanging in the balance.
A change in policy
A city hall insider has told us that policy changes by the de Blasio administration are mostly to blame for the surge in homelessness we have experienced over the past few years.
• The Giuliani & Bloomberg administrations would not allow homeless traveling from other states (or have relatives in other states) from staying in NYC shelters. The City would pay for a one-way ticket back to the city of their last known address. De Blasio said that was inhumane.
• The de Blasio administration raised the minimum income on affordable housing and qualification for a free apartment from $20,000 to $40,000.
• Homeless service providers have no incentives to diagnose seriously mentally ill residents. So instead of transferring them to hospitals, they keep them in hotel room/shelters indefinitely to make more $.
• And finally, Crowley seems to have alienated de Blasio or senior staff members since her district is being targeted for several shelters while other council members still have none in their districts.