In Queens, Immigrants Clash with Residents of New Homeless Shelter

Kate Taylor and Jeffrey E. Singer, New York Times, July 25, 2014

The crowd of 500 included grandmothers and small children, Chinese immigrants and the president of a local Republican club, all shouting that the mayor had trampled their rights.

The source of their anger? The 180 homeless families that New York City had moved into the defunct Pan American Hotel in Elmhurst, Queens. The residents felt nervous around the new arrivals, they said. There were reports of shoplifting from the Good Fortune Supermarket, public urination and panhandling–all things, they said, that had been unheard-of in their neighborhood until now.

During the protest on Tuesday night, one of the organizers spoke through a bullhorn in Mandarin, as a few people looked out the windows of the hotel.

“Speak in English!” a woman leaning out a window shouted, holding up her phone, perhaps to videotape the protest.

“Homeless with money,” a protester sneered, referring to the woman and her phone.

While local residents often object when the city opens a homeless shelter in their midst, the vitriol in Elmhurst since the city began moving families into the hotel in early June has shocked New York officials. Because many of those opposed to using the hotel as a shelter are Chinese immigrants, the conflict has also produced discomfiting images of immigrant families and the mostly black and Latino homeless families shouting insults at one another. A local civic group, Communities of Maspeth and Elmhurst Together, has organized a series of protests, including one in late June in which some of the protesters yelled at the shelter residents to “Get a job!” The homeless families responded that their opponents should “go back to China.”

Both the protest organizers and city officials now seem to want to avoid a repeat of that scene. On Tuesday the city sent buses to take the shelter residents and their children to a movie, to keep them away from the protest. And the organizers tried to keep the speakers’ criticism focused on the city’s policy, rather than on the homeless themselves. There were occasional lapses, as when a man translating a speech into Mandarin inserted a sentence saying that the city should not “put this garbage in our community.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio has made it a top priority to tackle the housing crisis by building or preserving some 200,000 units of affordable housing. He has promised to stem the city’s record numbers of homeless people in shelters by starting rent subsidy programs to help working and chronically homeless families.

But with those programs not yet in place, his administration is struggling to house the tens of thousands of people, including some 11,000 families, currently seeking shelter. With the city dependent on private landlords to supply space for shelters and nonprofit service providers to run them, it does not have many options for where to locate shelters.

The Pan American Hotel, on Queens Boulevard, is one of 11 shelters opened since the beginning of the year. A blocky, seven-story structure with 216 rooms, it was purchased recently by investors who are involved in running other shelters. {snip} Because the hotel lacks any kitchens, for now, meals are delivered. As of Tuesday, there were 648 people staying there, including 350 children.

Typically, the city consults extensively with local officials before opening a shelter, a process that can take up to a year. In this case, the Department of Homeless Services notified the local City Council member on the evening before the first families were moved into the hotel, and other elected officials only later. {snip}

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Several Chinese people at the protest on Tuesday said they believed that the city had intentionally targeted their neighborhood.

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Rachel Lam, 33, said she believed the government was bullying Asians because they assumed Asians would be silent.

“But when it comes to our home, our children, our community, our safety, we will come out and protest,” Ms. Lam said.

At the protest, many of the speakers stressed practical issues, like the neighborhood’s overcrowded schools, and pointed out that there were other shelters and adult homes nearby.

But in interviews, many said the homeless families simply made them feel unsafe.

“When you see them, it looks like they’re going to mug you,” Linda Chang, 50, said in Mandarin. “It makes me feel uncomfortable.”

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The Department of Homeless Services has said that it plans to use the hotel as a shelter as long it is needed. On Thursday, in a memo to elected officials and community leaders across the city, the department’s commissioner, Gilbert Taylor, said that in the future the department would make “every effort” to notify communities seven days before opening a shelter.

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