March 16, 2018 By Nathaly Pesantez
Blissville residents showed up in droves at the Department of Homeless Services’ town hall last night to demand that the city throw away plans to open a new homeless shelter in the neighborhood.
The permanent shelter is set to open at the current site of the Fairfield Inn by Marriott in April, and will be the third facility in the Blissville area sheltering the homeless. The nearby City View Inn and Best Western have been temporarily housing the homeless since 2017, and will begin to be phased out in 2021, the DHS said.
The new facility, to be named North Star, will provide shelter for up to 154 homeless adult families, or at least 308 people. The shelter is also the first to open in Queens under de Blasio’s “Turning the Tide” plan, which looks to eliminate the use of cluster sites and hotels—like the City View Inn and Best Western—and open multi-service facilities like these.
But area residents and business owners, echoing the safety and crime concerns shared at the last Community Board 2 meeting, said the new shelter is simply too much for the remote neighborhood of roughly 500, and the community cannot wait several more years for the shelters already in their neighborhood to be phased out.
“We are begging you to please not take any more [hotels] away from us,” said Erika Clooney, co-owner of the Bantry Bay Public House.
Clooney directly asked DHS Administrator Joslyn Carter about the number of homeless individuals being house in Blissville compared to the existing residents.
“How is placing 300 new people into our community when we only have 450 not a takeover?” Clooney asked. “That’s up to over 500 new people. It doesn’t make sense.”
“What I want to say to you is—we are going to close the commercial hotels,” Carter responded. “We are going to do that.”
Residents said they’re doing more than their fair share compared to other neighborhoods, given the size of Blissville.
“We’re talking about Blissville, which is isolated,” said David Martin, a fourth-generation resident. “Its actually not in-my-backyard—this is our backyard, our front yard, our drive way, and our living room.”
Some attendees asked how a hotel built in a mostly industrial area, with few shops and services, could be fit for a high-quality homeless facility. Others asked how Home/Life, the non-profit service provider, will have room in the location to offer programs, like counseling and health services, and basic needs like laundry and meals, to the families.
“How much thought did you and DHS and [Commissioner] Banks take into account?” said Warren Davis, a near 20-year resident of Blissville. “Placing vulnerable people in an isolated commercial zone, hidden away from desperately needed services and resources…only shows how the mayor and DHS are ashamed of them.”
Davis added: “We need homes—not hotels pretending to be shelters.”
Jackie Bray, First Deputy Commissioner for the DHS, said the agency has strict regulations on how much square footage is needed to operate a high quality shelter. “The site meets those regulations,” Bray said.
In addition, the facility will bring meals in for residents of the shelter, and will provide laundry on site. As the shelter moves toward opening, Home/Life will decide if rooms need to be taken offline to accommodate for office space.
The panel of DHS officials also discussed other features set to be in place at the shelter, like security guards and cameras, curfews, and private transportation to and from the shelter. The agency said it would work with the 108th Precinct to address safety concerns.
But the crowd was not accepting of the agency’s responses. Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Long Island City), who does not support the city’s plans for the new shelter, said the community has been haphazardly overburdened for too long.
“Because there is no plan, really, to build purpose based shelters, they just continue to come back to this community and our neighborhood,” Van Bramer said. “That’s not fair to this community.”
Van Bramer said he and members of the community have an “obligation” to tell the mayor that he is wrong.
“Is it a new shelter that was built for the homeless? No,” Van Bramer said. “It is another commercial hotel being converted overnight into a shelter. That is not the [mayor’s] plan.”
Van Bramer added: “They should look at this and say, ‘You know what? Three shelters, within several months, within a seven block radius— that is too much for one community.”
At the end of the town hall, the DHS said it intends to continue with its plan to open the new shelter.