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Queens Homeless Shelter Foes Make Last-Ditch Efforts to Stop Project

The site a proposed homeless shelter in a former warehouse in Glendale, Queens.
The site a proposed homeless shelter in a former warehouse in Glendale, Queens. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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Local opponents are hurling a pair of last-minute legal roadblocks in a bid to waylay a men’s homeless shelter proposed for the site of a former factory in Glendale, Queens.

The Department of Homeless Services will soon submit the $61 million contract with the organization Westhab to the city Comptroller’s Office for a standard review, and has set a target opening date of early next year.

Local residents plan to file a lawsuit Tuesday. And Councilmember Robert Holden (D-Queens) called on the city Department of Investigation to probe how city officials secured the deal to open the 200-bed men’s shelter at 78-16 Cooper Ave.

“Despite the claims by DHS that it wants to work with communities to find shelter sites, that is simply not the case,” he wrote in a Nov. 6 letter to DOI. “The entire procurement process has been flawed and I am formally requesting an investigation.”

Holden said he spent the past year negotiating with various city agencies, including DHS and the School Construction Authority, to build a new school at the planned site — and to find an alternative location for the shelter.

‘What People Fear’

Holden and members of the Glendale-Middle Village Coalition argue the shelter is not the right fit for the neighborhood, which is comprised mostly  of one- and two-family homes.

Meanwhile, Dawn Scala, a coalition member and longtime Glendale resident, said the group will file a lawsuit against the city Tuesday.

She said city officials just don’t get the message that “there are very few communities that are embracing these large shelters.”

“I think we can see the writing on the wall that a lot of the people coming to homeless shelters are probably coming from jail,” said Scala, 49. “These mega warehouse shelters aren’t working and the city needs to change its approach.”

NY1 reported last year that at any given time about 1,600 people living in the city’s shelter system are on parole.

Councilmember Robert Holden (D-Queens) speaks at a City Hall hearing on Oct. 17, 2019.
Councilmember Robert Holden (D-Queens) speaks at a City Hall hearing on Oct. 17, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Holden, a Democrat who won his Council seat by running on the Republican line in 2017 after rallying against another proposed shelter in the area, said he believed it was possible that shelter resident could include sex offenders and people with serious mental illnesses.

“When you have a large population, many of whom have problems, usually there is going to be problems in the neighborhood surrounding it,” he added. “What people fear is what I fear.”

A School Construction Authority representative could not be reached for comment. Arianna Fishman, a  DHS spokesperson, said none of Holden’s suggestions for the site were “viable.”

“As a result, we are moving forward with opening these first-of-their-kind high-quality facilities in this community as soon as possible to give individuals and families experiencing homelessness from Queens the opportunity to be closer to their support networks as they get back on their feet,” she said.

Long Fight for Shelter

The initial pushback against the shelter began six years ago, when the DHS and another nonprofit organization first announced plans for the Glendale location. Residents, including Holden, banded together to form the Glendale-Middle Village Coalition.

They protested and sued unsuccessfully. The opponents got a reprieve when the city Department of Buildings ultimately panned the project’s floor plans.

This past summer, DHS revived the concept of constructing a shelter at the site, sparking an outpouring of rallies and controversial public discussions. At a Community Board 5 hearing last month, one attendee yelled that, if built, the shelter should be burned down — and was met with cheers.

Residents say the divisive issue has unveiled ugly sentiments within the community.

Caty Seger, a 22-year old Glendale native and a member of the Ridgewood Tenants Union, said she felt “ashamed” of some local residents’ reaction to having homeless New Yorkers in the neighborhood.

“I think it’s a very small minority of people who are super against the shelter,” Seger said.

’Flames of Intolerance’

Toby Sheppard Bloch, a 44-year-old former Community Board 5 member and Glendale resident, said that while shelter opponents are fanning “flames of intolerance,” not all in the community share their beliefs.

“Sometimes division is a bad thing, sometimes it’s an illuminating thing,” said Bloch. “There’s illumination in recognizing there is a significant portion of the community that is deeply uneasy with the way the shelter is being opposed.”

He added: “There are people in the community who recognize they are only a paycheck from being precariously housed and having to seek shelter in the system.”

DHS Commissioner Steve Banks told THE CITY in August that a legal fight has never stopped a city shelter from eventually opening.

“In every instance, we prevail,” he said. “But litigation does delay.”

Holden said he believes the planned lawsuit and his request for a DOI probe are not merely postponing the inevitable.

“I think it’s realistic to stop it again,” Holden said. “I think the community can stop it.”

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