At the heart of the protest was the lack of transparency surrounding the decision, with much of the blame falling on an assistant commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services, who on May 22 told members of Queens Community Board 5 that the hotel “is not suitable for families with children.”
“The law in the city of New York requires all families with children to be sheltered in a facility that requires both a kitchen and a bathroom, so families are sheltered in apartment-style units,” Lisa Black said last month. “The hotel that was presented to us is just that. The hotel does not have kitchens, it does not have bathrooms.”
Despite Black’s comments at the CB5 meeting, on June 6 at 4:45 p.m., 36 homeless families were moved into the Pan Am Hotel through the back door.
Councilman Daniel Dromm, who was present at the rally and who has publicly condemned the decision, said that he had no prior knowledge that DHS planned to actually use the site for housing the homeless until it was too late.
“I am upset that I was only informed that 36 homeless families would be given shelter at the Pan Am hotel as it was actually happening. My office and our community were given no advance notice,” Dromm said. “The hotel has 216 rooms. I believe it is bad policy to bring that many needy people into one place.
“While I recognize and support the need to house our homeless, I believe that this number is way too large,” he continued. “While DHS has promised my office added security and additional social services at the site, I still believe Elmhurst is overburdened.”
Local residents were infuriated with the decision, with many speaking of their disappointment with their elected officials for letting the hotel be turned into a shelter.
“They’ve been telling lies to us. They said there will be no homeless shelter here in one community meeting, now all of the sudden,they dump them on us,” said Elmhurst resident Celia Gullas. “They bring them in by busloads at night, and through the backdoors so no one can see.”
Man Lam, a homeowner near 72nd Street and Calamus Avenue, said she fears that bringing in such a large number of homeless people will cause safety issues, especially considering that there are several schools nearby.
“A friend of mine got robbed on this street, someone took a knife out and broke her wrist,” said Lam. “We have a lot of schools and this is a good community, so we don’t want homeless to live here and to create crimes and safety issues. They should find a location that is more remote, more away from the schools and from the kids.”
Indira, a bank teller and long-time resident, shared some of her specific fears, while others nearby at the protest nodded in support.
“We don’t know if they’re pedophiles, or if they are coming from prisons. We don’t know who they are, we know nothing about these people,” she said. “That’s the problem. And it is scary.”
Luz Pretel said she has already noticed a change in the area since DHS began moving homeless into the former hotel.
“We already see men sitting outside, and different people coming into the community, homeless people at the bus stop—a whole new crowd of people,” she said. “If they say it is families, we’re not going to believe it. They lied to us, they were sneaky about it. This area is growing, booming, and then they dump this right into the middle of it.”
In December, DHS proposed a five-year plan for the Pan Am Hotel that would allot $27 million to provide shelter and services to families, who would only live in the facility for a maximum of about one year each. As of May 22, the plan had not been completed or submitted to the comptroller.
Black didn’t say where money would come from to pay for necessary renovations to the Pan Am Hotel, though she did adamantly profess that “The cost of renovation to the facility will not be footed by the City of New York. DHS will not pay a single dollar until we occupy the sight.”