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Front Page July 2, 2009  RSS feed

REJECTED BY BLOCK

Neighbors Fuming Over Shelter Plan
story and photo by Robert Pozarycki

Residents jammed into the basement of Bethzatha Church of God in Elmhurst on Monday night, June 29, for a special meeting regarding the opening of a transitional shelter for homeless individuals at a site on 58th Avenue in Elmhurst. As shown in the bottom photo, Yolanda Martin-Garibaldi (standing with microphone), vice president of The Queens Alliance Inc.—which is operating the shelter—sought to allay concerns voiced by residents during the session. She is pictured along with (from left to right) Queens Community Board 4 District Manager Richard Italiano, Board 4 Chairperson Louis Walker and Communities of Maspeth and Elmhurst Together (COMET) President Rosemarie Daraio. (photos: Robert Pozarycki) Residents jammed into the basement of Bethzatha Church of God in Elmhurst on Monday night, June 29, for a special meeting regarding the opening of a transitional shelter for homeless individuals at a site on 58th Avenue in Elmhurst. As shown in the bottom photo, Yolanda Martin-Garibaldi (standing with microphone), vice president of The Queens Alliance Inc.—which is operating the shelter—sought to allay concerns voiced by residents during the session. She is pictured along with (from left to right) Queens Community Board 4 District Manager Richard Italiano, Board 4 Chairperson Louis Walker and Communities of Maspeth and Elmhurst Together (COMET) President Rosemarie Daraio. (photos: Robert Pozarycki) Tensions ran high during a special meeting on Monday night, June 29, regarding the opening of a transitional housing shelter in Elmhurst, as residents and civic activists demanded that something be done to prevent the facility from opening its doors.

Billed as an informational meeting held jointly by Queens Community Board 4 and the Communities of Maspeth and Elmhurst Together (COMET), most of the large crowd in attendance at the Bethzatha Church of God told a representative of The Queens Alliance Inc.—which is opening an emergency housing center at 86-18 58th Ave.—that the shelter was not welcome in the area.

Speakers during the session expressed concerns that the shelter's residents would have criminal backgrounds and would pose a threat to citizens living in the predominantly residential community. Even as the non-profit organization's representative tried to assure them that the facility would only house law-abiding individuals and would be properly secured, many of the attendees publicly doubted that those promises would be fulfilled.

Neighbors living around the shelter site joined members of COMET in vowing to fight to prevent the facility from opening its doors. Attendees agreed at the conclusion of Monday's meeting to hold a protest outside the 58th Avenue location on Saturday, July 11, at 11 a.m.

Inside the shelter

The Queens Alliance's vice president, Yolanda Martin-Garibaldi, informed the audience that the shelter would provide temporary housing to 29 currently homeless adults as well as various social services in order to help them locate homes of their own.

"Our responsibility is to house them and give them the assistance they need to acquire permanent housing," Garibaldi said.

The 58th Avenue facility—which formerly served as a convent for religious women working at the now-defunct St. John's Queens Hospital and Ascension Elementary School— would be open exclusively to single or married adults referred to the agency by the New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA). In part, the shelter would ease over- crowding at the city's emergency housing facilities, which Garibaldi noted are teeming with homeless individuals amid the ongoing economic crisis.

This shelter would be the first operated by The Queens Alliance, which the organization's vice president stated was formed a year ago. Even so, she noted, the group's administration has had prior experience managing emergency housing facilities across the five boroughs.

Garibaldi stressed that the shelter would not house sex offenders or exconvicts recently released from prison and will not serve as a treatment center for drug addicts and patients with HIV/AIDS. All residents must undergo background checks and drug tests, and The Queens Alliance has the right to reject any potential clients the organization deems as inappropriate, she added.

Individuals in need from around the Elmhurst community and Queens will be given first preference at the shelter, according to information provided by the non-profit group.

Shelter residents will be allowed to leave during the day, but may not be permitted to have guests at the facility, Garibaldi said. The organization will primarily provide their clients with support services including job referrals, education, food and clothing. The center will also provide assistance for individuals with HIV/AIDS who are considered asymptomatic.

'As-of-right'

Board 4 District Manager Richard Italiano and COMET President Rosemarie Daraio noted that the use of the 58th Avenue location as a temporary housing shelter is "as-of-right" and legal under the existing zoning for the property.

Since the three-story building located between Van Horn and Seabury streets previously served as a convent where a large number of people resided, the facility is permitted by law to operate as a shelter under Buildings Department rules.

According to a temporary certificate of occupancy issued by the Department of Buildings (available online through the agency's Buildings Information System), management is allowed to maintain seven dwelling units on the first floor and 11 bedrooms on both the second and third floors. No medical treatment may be provided on the site, as noted.

Even so, residents slammed the idea that the shelter was permitted under existing zoning laws, noting that the area already houses an elementary school as well as a group home for mentally disabled persons in close proximity to the 58th Avenue facility.

"They just dump everything here," said resident Nicholas Pennachio. "The Queens Alliance should know that they are not welcome here."

Another community resident noted that in addition to having P.S. 102 on Van Horn Street, the area around the shelter site also houses numerous nursery schools. "You're leaving us with another burden that would be too much already."

Elmhurst resident Linda Lam added that the area "shoulders more than our fair share" of community facilities, speculating that the language barrier in the diverse neighborhood makes it difficult for residents to stand up against large scale developments and projects in the community.

"We will organize and mobilize and do what it takes to stop this shelter from destroying our neighborhood," Lam said.

They don't believe the promises

Even after Garibaldi's explanation, some in attendance were skeptical that the promises made to them during the meeting would be carried out. One resident pointed to a similar homeless shelter on Woodside Avenue in Elmhurst, charging that its residents frequently panhandle to pedestrians on local streets.

"I couldn't walk four blocks without people begging me for money or food," the attendee said.

Lam added that the residents of the shelter would pose a threat to the large number of children walking through local streets to and from school each day. She questioned assurances that the residents of the shelter would have a clean criminal record.

"How do we know the people sent there are not sex offenders or criminals?" she asked.

Garibaldi reiterated that in its agreement with the HRA, The Queens Alliance indicated that it would choose the residents it wants and would not bring in registered sex offenders, those with a violent criminal history or others deemed undesirable.

When asked by resident Eric Chung about the security system in place at the facility, Garibaldi noted that two security guards would be on site and surveillance devices would also be installed. One neighbor of the shelter, Brayan Terrazas, questioned if that would be enough, noting that the center would need to monitor entrances on both sides of the facility to prevent criminal activity from taking place.

Though the facility is located outside of her district, City Council Member Elizabeth Crowley stopped by to show her support for residents fighting the opening of the temporary shelter. In addition to promising to draft legislation designed to prevent further shelters from opening without public review, she pledged to work with the community to make sure the center does not open.

"We have to fight together to stop this," she said, encouraging them to hold protests and to reach out to their local elected officials.

Jeff Gottlieb, a representative of State Sen. Joseph Addabbo, added that he would relay the community's concerns to the legislator.

Daraio noted that COMET and Board 4 have requested a copy of The Queens Alliance's guidelines for accepting residents into the shelter. She also stated that residents in the area would need to work together to keep a careful eye on the site and to report problems.

"We're one community, and we have to fight the battle together," she said.

Charges of vandalism

Sometime after Monday's meeting, the 58th Avenue shelter was damaged by an unknown vandal, according to the lawyer representing The Queens Alliance. The claims of vandalism, however, could not be verified by police as of press time Wednesday.

Mitchell Ross told the Times Newsweekly in a phone interview that a number of windows were broken and a phone line leading into the facility was cut. The damage was reportedly discovered on Tuesday morning by workers at the shelter.

Ross said the incident left the organization "disappointed," adding that The Queens Alliance is looking to work with the community to make sure the shelter operates peacefully and safely.