(Elmhurst, Queens) Organized by various community organizations, more than 500 people protested for the 3rd time (July 22) at the Pan Am Hotel near Queens Blvd and 51st Ave. The protesters were protesting against the City for the conversion of the Pan Am hotel into a homeless shelter. Gilbert Taylor, Commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services (DHS), held a press conference beforehand. He expressed a willingness to communicate and hopes the community understands that this was an “emergency decision”. To prevent the confrontations between the protesters and homeless shelter residents, 5 school buses were sent to take the homeless families on a trip to the cinema.
Two hours before the protest, which was scheduled at 6:30pm, five 48-seat school buses stopped at the back of the hotel and departed with the homeless families. One homeless shelter resident indicated that she knew that there was going to be a protest today, and understands everyone has the right to express his or her opinions. However, she hopes the local residents and homeless families have mutual respect for each other. “Nobody wants to be in a homeless shelter forever” she said. Another person from the shelter expressed that this is a “Family Shelter” which should alleviate the residents' security worries.
Commissioner Taylor held his press conference in front of the Pan Am Hotel but departed before the protest began. When questioned on the lack of transparency and the selection of the location of the shelter, the Commissioner responded “The city’s homeless shelters are currently insufficient; DHS has a responsibility to provide care as soon as possible. Most shelter residents are poor people, who got evicted by their land lords or victims of domestic violence. As for the children, they need to avoid being further psychologically damaged, as they have experienced emotional discomfort from the previous two protests.”
Commissioner Taylor stated that a third of the homeless families have jobs and the rest are actively looking as this is only a temporary shelter. DHS has already sent representatives to communicate with the community, who have active dialogues with the local churches and hopes the community does not have prejudice against the homeless. He also hopes the community does not over-react as he says that the homeless are harmless to the community. As for the issue of overcrowding in Universal Pre-K, he is actively negotiating with the Department of Education.
A spokesman from DHS indicated that there is an “obstacle” for DHS to check for criminal records of potential homeless residents, thus DHS is unable to screen for this information. The hotel currently houses 181 families and has 24 hour surveillance with police and security on standby. All residents are required to log-in and out. Other than job related factors, access is only granted until 10PM.
Participating in the protest were mainly Asian residents and organizations, which included Elmhurst Block Association (ELMBA), Hotel Chinese Association of New York (HCANY), Chinese Cultural Arts Association, Malaysia Association of America, Filipino Association of Elmhurst, and Newtown Civic Association. Democratic candidate for State Senator of the 16th district, SJ Jung, also attended.
Protesters strongly emphasized that they are not against the homeless, and they also recognized the need for homeless shelters in New York City. However, the city officials (from DHS) lied to the community back in May on the future of the Pan Am Hotel as a homeless shelter, and the following month, they announced the conversion only after 30 families had moved in. The protesters felt that 1) the Mayor should be held responsible for this action. 2) Many homeless people in general have mental and substance abuse issues, or criminal backgrounds. 3) Warehousing them in a hotel is not a solution. 4) It will only further strain the already scarce services provided by the Police Departments, the Fire Stations, the Hospitals, the Public Schools, EMS and other equally critical entities.