Hosted by Community Board 5 (CB5) at Maspeth's Knockdown Center, opponents of the shelter packed the venue, wearing “Maspeth Matters” and “No Homeless Shelter” t-shirts.
When Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Steven Banks tried to explain the homelessness crisis to the crowd, protesters silently turned their backs to him while a few people called him a liar.
“In New York City, there’s a legal obligation to provide shelters to New Yorkers and to make sure people have a roof over their heads,” Banks said. “That’s a moral obligation as well.”
Like during the August 11th community meeting, Banks spoke about the 115 percent increase in the city shelter population, up from 24,000 in 1994 to 51,000 in 2014. He reiterated that the current proposal, with a projected start date sometime in October, is to provide shelter for 110 adult families.
The five-year contract proposal is with Acacia Network, a shelter operator which also runs 25 other shelters throughout the city, including Pam’s Place in Long Island City. They would provide case management services, employment services and security for the approximately 220 people living at the 55th Road location.
Contrary to what many in the community have dreaded, Banks said Wednesday that the city has not yet signed off on anything just yet.
“We are reviewing the proposal,” Banks said. “No contract has been signed.”
More than 60 people from the community signed up at the hearing to testify against the proposal. CB5 district manager Gary Giordano opened by contrasting the Maspeth shelter proposal with the city’s plan to open a homeless shelter in Glendale, in which construction has stalled.
“When you have a hotel situation, it’s much different than the situation we had in Glendale where they would have had to renovate the building,” Giordano said. “It’s already made, unfortunately, in my opinion, to move people in.”
Giordano recommended that the city renovate NYCHA apartments and not phase out cluster apartments, where many homeless people currently live.
He added that the homeless population is increasingly coming from out of state. Estimated to be 3 percent a few years ago, Giordano said that number is now between 11 and 18 percent.
“People from all over the country come to New York City. It’s escalating the price of land, of apartments and homes,” he said. “Serious consideration has to be given to relocating people to and rebuilding towns in upstate New York.”
To quell suspicion about outsiders infiltrating the city and increasing the homeless population, Banks later said at the hearing that only 135 families out of more than 120,000 families in the system have no connection with New York City.
Several speakers took aim at Mayor Bill de Blasio himself. Mike Papa, a Maspeth resident who was arrested on the night of the first protest at the hotel on August 11, said the mayor divided the community, but “not in the way you hope.”
“Mr. de Blasio, you have not divided the community from each other,” Papa said. “You’ve divided our community from your administration.”
He criticized the mayor for forcing this decision on the local elected officials, leaving them and the community with no choice on the issue.
“This is not the democratic process,” Papa said. “He’s using every loophole in the administrative code.”
Michael LoCascio, a Community Board 5 member and a leader in the ongoing nightly protests in front of the Holiday Inn, expressed security concerns, much like the ones faced by Elmhurst residents near the Pan Am hotel shelter. He sent a message directly to the mayor about his prospects of re-election.
“Mayor de Blasio, I don’t know where he runs or hides, but look at this face because I’m going to lead the charge to get rid of him,” LoCascio said. “We gotta fight and I’m going to be there with you.”
Christina Wilkinson, a community activist who is raising money online to fund a citizen’s lawsuit against the city, brought up concerns about the shady background of the hotel owner and shelter operator. She said Acacia has had “numerous violations at its own shelters,” to the point where some of their cluster sites were shut down.
“Why they are being awarded with yet another contract when they have such a poor record as service providers is very suspicious,” she said.
Then there’s Acacia’s partnership with Harshad Patel, the hotel owner. Wilkinson cited reports tying Patel to former Brooklyn State Senator Carl Kruger, who in 2012 was sentenced to seven years for corruption.
“Why are taxpayer dollars funneled to somebody like this?” she said. “He should be banned from ever doing business with the city or nonprofits that have contracts with it.”
Banks said that they’re taking “all of the things that are issues” into account while considering the shelter proposal.
Earlier in the evening, Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, joined by State Senator Joseph Addabbo and Assemblywoman Marge Markey, announced that they were suing the city on the grounds that city law requires kitchen facilities in family shelter units, which the Holiday Inn Express lacks.
Wilkinson told the community Wednesday that she was also planning to file an Article 78 lawsuit against the city.
Juniper Park Civic Association president Robert Holden called the shelter “nothing more than a glorified jail cell” and threatened more protests if the city follows through with their plan.
“We’re going to pull out 2,000 more if you try to open this homeless shelter in our neighborhood. Mark my words, this is a promise,” Holden said. “We will do everything possible to shut that area down on a nightly basis and we will not tolerate something that’s being shoved down our throats.”
As the public hearing wrapped up, CB5 chair Vincent Arcuri said the board will analyze everything that was said and submitted in paper. He said he wouldn’t comment on a position until after taking all the statements for consideration.
“We will be preparing a position paper and letters to the mayor and the commissioner as soon as we get together with our research,” Arcuri said. “We will be taking a position, and you’ll be hearing from us very soon.”