Department of Homeless Services spokesman Chris Miller was on site at the time with some of his staff, and explained that the choice to take the children out to dinner and a movie for the evening was planned to remove the children from the shelter so they wouldn’t have to endure the vitriolic atmosphere of the protest.
“We heard [the kids] were feeling pretty bad about what was going on,” Miller said.
He also said the trip was paid for out of a recreation budget that is part of the overall budget for every homeless shelter in the city, and the buses were provided by the Department of Education free of charge.
DHS Commissioner Gilbert Taylor also spoke to the press in a closed-door session at the Pan Am, and said of the planned excursion, “It’s something that you and I all do and it’s something that we need to make sure they are able to do.”
Parents and their children, who were eager with anticipation while waiting for their buses, were treated to dinner at a Chinese buffet and then the film How to Train Your Dragon II.
Protests surrounding the shelter have been ongoing since it opened in early July, and have mostly focused on the lack of transparency, as well as Elmhurst residents’ concerns regarding safety and impact on property values.
On May 22, DHS Deputy Commissioner Lisa Black said at a public meeting that the Pan Am Hotel would not be able to shelter families since the law requires family residences to include a kitchen and bathroom in every unit. Taylor explained that DHS was able to get around this regulation by bringing in catered meals three times per day for residents.
Indira, a bank teller and long-time Elmhurst resident, was among those at an earlier protest to express concern over the lack of criminal background checks among shelter residents.
“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’s scary.”
To those concerns, Taylor said, “The reason we don’t screen for things like criminal background is because it’s a barrier to shelter.”
Some residents at earlier protests also expressed resentment towards shelter residents, who have been characterized as unemployed and leeching on the system. In hopes to dispel this image, Taylor said, “These are people who work, who are trying their best to get back on their feet.”
Elmhurst isn’t the only community up in arms. In Glendale, residents have been pulling no punches calling for the city to abandon a proposal for a Cooper Avenue shelter, which will be operated by Samaritan Village – the same company that oversees the Pan Am shelter.
Opponents state that an Environmental Assessment Study commissioned by DHS that found no contamination at the former industrial site was flawed.
“There were 21 borings across that site, all of them came back fine,” Miller said. “The reason we don’t do [these studies in house] is that we don’t want a bias. We stand behind our report. We feel it was thorough.”
Taylor hopes that residents will come to accept the shelters and their residents sooner rather than later.
“I live on a block that has three homeless shelters, and I didn’t know they were shelters until I became the commissioner,” he said. “Life goes on.”