Thursday, March 10, 2011

Shelter Switch Brings Outrage, Fear by Domenick Rafter - Queens Tribune

Read original...

About a month ago, Valerie Lewis, the principal of PS 124 in South Ozone Park, noticed students who lived in the Skyway Hotel homeless shelter two blocks from the school began missing class. Concerned about the pattern of absences, she walked over to the shelter which housed homeless families at 132-10 South Conduit Ave., and was horrified at what she found.
The Skyway Family Shelter sign still hangs outside the men-only site in Community Board 10.
Tribune Photo by Ira Cohen

Families, given only five days' notice, were uprooted. The water in the building was turned off. Furniture was being thrown into the street.

"What was going on there was egregious," Lewis said.

Without warning, the shelter was reclassified a "men only shelter," and local residents and officials, irate at the City for what it calls "lack of respect" for their neighborhood, have grown further incensed. Nobody, not the shelter's neighbors, nor local officials, nor Community Board 10, knew it was happening. By the time parents and community members gathered at PS 124 on March 3, more than 30 men had already moved in.

Lewis said she had contacted the City and the new owners of the shelter, who had told her that the homeless population among single adults had risen, necessitating the need for more shelters, and families were being moved to parts of the City where there were "more opportunities." By the end of March, she said, the shelter would house up to 180 men.

"I think they thought no one would notice," she said.

An angry Councilman Ruben Wills (D-South Jamaica) told parents at a March 3 meeting that he was told about the change the night before. He said Dept. of Homeless Services Commissioner Seth Diamond told him that DHS moved the shelter into the community because "they met opposition elsewhere." Wills noted that more than 70 percent of Queens' homeless shelters are in Southeast Queens.

"Our unfair burden of housing the homeless population of Queens is not to be tolerated," he said. He added Council legislation to "scatter" homeless shelters was blocked, and called on the state legislature to step in. He also called for parents and local resident to "be loud" and suggested a rally be held at City Hall.

"This room should be packed," he said. "The more people there are, the more press it will get. The worst thing for the mayor right now is bad press. I'm not going to accept that you don't have time to fight for this."

CB 10 Chairwoman Betty Braton, who was also kept in the dark, called the shelter's change "outrageous." She said CB 10 District Manager Karyn Peterson has met with the Commissioner of Public Services about the shelter.

"I find it hard to believe they didn't have enough time to notify everyone," Braton said.

In a statement, Dept. of Homeless Services spokeswoman Heather Janik said the change was necessary and they would work with the community.

"As DHS continues to provide temporary, emergency shelter to homeless New Yorkers, we strive to be a good neighbor and work with the community to address any concerns that arise," the statement read. "We have recently seen an increase in the number of single adults seeking services from our system, and as such, must utilize all available capacity to ensure the needs of our clients are met every night."

DHS said it notified CB 10 and local officials Feb. 9 of the change and chose new management on Feb. 10.

Parents are concerned about the population of homeless men living in the shelter in the quiet community bordering JFK Airport and bisected by the Belt Parkway. They began to notice men from the shelter loitering at gas stations and a park on North Conduit Avenue, asking for money, and wandering residential streets at night. Eileen Lamanna, who has a child and a grandchild in PS 124, said she has seen groups of men gathering in areas where children walk every day.

"We don't know what they're putting in that shelter and they aren't going to tell us," Lamanna said. "What were these people in power thinking?"

The PTA at PS 124 met with the new management at the shelter to discuss security. They were told the shelter would have five full-time security guards working on three shifts, but the shift changes will coincide with school arrival and dismissal, which worried parents.

The guards will only work on shelter grounds and after 10 p.m., the doors of the center will be locked and those left outside will be left to fend for themselves until morning. The shelter has agreed to provide vans to bring the men outside of the neighborhood for recreation. They admitted the shelter does not know the criminal records of the men who will be housed there because the City gives them little notice when they drop off residents.

That point opened up concern about the possibility of violent criminals or sex offenders living in the shelter without anyone knowing. The school and the surrounding neighborhood sits in between the shelter and the A train subway and Aqueduct Racetrack, leading to concerns about men in the shelter coming in contact with children on their way to and from the casino scheduled to open there this summer.

Lewis said PS 124 would now have to come up with its own security plan. The school building will be locked down during the day. In the schoolyard at recess, the gates will be locked, with teachers and staff having the key to open them.

Lewis said PS 124 was recently changed to a "priority one" school, calling for added security. Lewis said she thought it was because of the school's proximity to JFK. Landing planes often fly low over the school. Now she believes the shelter had something to do with that change.

"That should have been my first signal," she said.

Reach Reporter Domenick Rafter at or (718) 357-7400, Ext. 125.