Controversy in Maspeth Over 15-Bed Asylum Seeker Shelter

By Celia Bernhardt | [email protected]

Police stand by the synagogue as around a dozen Queens residents gather in protest nearby. Credit: Celia Bernhardt

A new 15-cot shelter for male asylum seekers opened on March 7 at 66-64 Grand Avenue in Maspeth, a historic building that formerly operated as a synagogue. The building sits just off the Long Island Expressway service road, a few doors down from a local Key Foods. 

The 1920s building, previously called the Maspeth Jewish Center, has not hosted an active congregation for decades. The Rabbinical Seminary of America (also called Yeshiva Choftez Chaim of Queens) obtained the building in 2017 after the Maspeth Jewish Center’s board agreed to sell it to them. RSA ran a preschool in the building from September 2023 until one week before they signed the contract to establish the shelter, according to a representative. 

The RSA and other religious groups willing to operate similar shelters will be reimbursed at a rate of $65 per person per night, up to $35,500 per month, according to a letter from the city and New York Disaster Interfaith Services. The shelter will host asylum seekers from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., with a curfew in place from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. Security will be present throughout its operating hours. 

Some Maspeth residents have expressed their outrage at the news through Facebook groups and a small gathering in protest last Friday. 

Councilman Rob Holden took to X on March 6 to criticize the move. “Our office is aware of a notice that @NYCMayorsOffice sent for a proposal to house 15 migrants at the Synagogue located at 66-64 Grand Avenue in Maspeth, starting tomorrow,” Holden wrote. “We’ve spoken directly with the Rabbi, who denies this and says no contract was signed.”

The Queens Ledger spoke to a representative from RSA who claimed that Rabbi Glazer — the Rabbi that Holden referenced — did not outright deny the plans to Holden. The representative said that at the time of Holden and Rabbi Glazer’s conversation, a decision was still pending and the contract had not yet been signed. Later that day, however, the contract was signed. 

The representative also explained that the preschool’s recent closure was due to an inability to gather approvals from city agencies in time to meet certain deadlines from the Department of Education, which proceeded to cut funding to the program. The preschool has since merged with another already-funded program. 

Holden blasted the move as “completely unacceptable” in a later post on X.

Credit: Charlie Finnerty

The shelter is the only one operating in Maspeth, but Community District 5 houses a few others. A homeless shelter at 78-16 Cooper Avenue in Glendale accommodates up to 200 single men, and a smaller family shelter sits on Summerfield Street at Wyckoff Avenue in Ridgewood. Both of these shelters only accommodate homeless New Yorkers, not asylum seekers. A faith-based shelter for asylum seekers, similar to the new location in Maspeth, opened in Ridgewood Presbyterian Church in the past month according to CB5 District Manager Gary Giordano. 

“I don’t think there have been any problems there,” Giordano said of the Church shelter. 

Giordano said he knows of very few complaints with regard to the Summerfield Street location, whereas some issues have been brought up with the Cooper Avenue shelter. 

Giordano also recalled that Sacred Heart Church in Glendale used to operate an overnight homeless shelter years ago. “They would get a meal, be able to take a shower, be able to sleep in a warm place, get breakfast in the morning,” he said. 

One of the questions Giordano has posed to the mayor’s office, he said, is what the men taking refuge in the Maspeth shelter overnight will do with their day. 

“In their case it’s hard, because a lot of them probably want to work, but they don’t have proper work authorization, from what I know,” Giordano said. “People usually aren’t lazy.”

Susan Kohl is the sole board member of the Maspeth Jewish Center who still resides in Maspeth, and attended the synagogue growing up while it was still active. She visited the inside of the shelter on Friday. 

“I went in there angry, and I came out with a little bit of understanding,” she said. 

Kohl said the inside of the building looked completely different than how she remembered it, with amenities that were clearly built to operate a preschool, along with some — namely, showers — that seemed to be an investment in the building’s capacity to act as a shelter. She noted the presence of classrooms, child-safe seats to use on buses, and bathrooms designed for children’s use. She also said that the building also seemed perfectly well-suited to act as a shelter, equipped with showers, a sprinkler system, supplies, and security at the front desk. 

Although she no longer doubts the building’s capacity to house asylum seekers, Kohl still doesn’t fully agree with the decision. 

“I think it still doesn’t belong there, and I think it’s sort of not fair because they [RSA] don’t live here, they don’t work here,” Kohl said. She added that she thinks many in the community might be scared by the presence of the shelter — and that she herself was initially scared as well. 

“I was up and down the avenue all day today, I didn’t see one,” Kohl said, referring to the asylum seekers. “They would stick out. I would notice.” 

A crowd of about a dozen protestors gathered outside the shelter on Friday afternoon. 27-year-old Deanna Andrea, a Jamaica, Queens resident, organized the gathering. 

“Where I live, I see the effects of how different people who aren’t from here legally per se are causing certain issues,” Andrea said. 

A few drivers passing by the scene rolled down their windows to shout out their opposition to the shelter. 

About a dozen gathered in protest on Friday. Credit: Celia Bernhardt

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