More than 700 people attended a town hall hosted by Councilman Robert Holden, which was billed as an informational meeting to come up with a strategy to fight the city’s proposal to open a homeless shelter at 78-16 Cooper Avenue.
“This proposed shelter is out of character, it doesn’t fit into the fabric of the neighborhood,” Holden said to kick off the meeting. “We know this shelter cannot go in.”
The shelter for 200 single men is set to open in early 2020. It will be run by the Yonkers-based nonprofit Westhab, which will provide onsite services such as job readiness training, job search assistance and access to employment case managers.
At the town hall, Holden went over the history of the Cooper Avenue site, which was first proposed to be converted into a shelter in 2013. But due to community opposition, including a lawsuit against the city’s plans, the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) eventually dropped the proposal.
In July 2018, Holden said, the city wanted to open a shelter there again, but the councilman suggested that the property be used as a school for special needs students instead.
Multiple city agencies, as well as the mayor’s office, agreed, according to Holden. The councilman reported back to the community that the school proposal was “90 percent there.”
But over the summer, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza announced that the Department of Education would invest money to rehabilitate PS 9, a different special-needs school in an industrial area of Maspeth. That took the Cooper Avenue site off the table as a potential school.
A week later, DHS Commissioner Steven Banks called Holden to tell him the deal was off, Holden said at the town hall.
“We’re going to fight and we’re going to fight hard,” Holden said in response. “We will not accept City Hall dictating what our neighborhood should have.”
The councilman, who led nightly protests against the city’s proposed shelter in Maspeth before he was elected to office, equated opening the shelter with 200 men to “four new blocks of people who don’t necessarily live in the neighborhood.”
He also argued that should the shelter open, whenever a crime is committed in the neighborhood, the homeless will get blamed, “right or wrong.”
“The homeless there will never assimilate to the neighborhood,” he said. “They’ll never blend in.”
Holden further asserted that the homeless men who will be placed at the site do not come from the district, which includes Glendale, Middle Village, Maspeth and Ridgewood.
Banks told Holden that 250 homeless people come from Community Board 5, the councilman said. But when the pol asked for a breakdown, the DHS commissioner “didn’t give me an answer.”
Holden said that’s because the community doesn’t “generate 200 homeless men.”
“We’ll take of our own, but we’re not going to take care of people who are let out of Rikers to house them in our neighborhood,” he told the crowd at the town hall meeting. “We have our families here. We’ve invested our entire lives to buy homes and we want a stable neighborhood.”
Earlier this month, Holden and other elected officials, as well as the chair and district manager of the community board, attended a briefing at City Hall with DHS.
They were told that the site will have eight case managers, two social workers and an in-house security force that includes 40 guards and six supervisors who will work in three shifts for 24-hour security.
Westhab will also operate a 15-person van to transport some of the men to the nearest subway station, which is the Metropolitan Avenue M stop.
Additionally, Holden said, the men will live in dormitory-style rooms. They have to leave their dorms during the day, but are not required to leave the building. The average length of stay is expected to be nine months per individual.
At the town hall, Holden was joined by State Senator Joseph Addabbo and Assemblyman Mike Miller, both of whom also oppose the Glendale shelter.
“We don’t have the transportation, we don’t have the infrastructure,” Addabbo said. “We don’t have what it takes to handle 200 individuals.”
Instead, Addabbo, like Holden, wants the city to open smaller shelters that would fit in better with local neighborhoods, he said.
“If we worked together, we could’ve found smaller, appropriate spaces for these homeless individuals,” he said.
The Glendale-Middle Village Coalition is planning to file an Article 78 proceeding to halt the opening of the shelter. E. Christopher Murray, the group’s attorney, said the lawsuit will “hold the city’s feet to the fire” and make sure officials follow proper procedures.
But ultimately, the solution has to come from people in the community, Murray said.
“What we can do is slow them down, make sure they go through the process so the political efforts can bear fruit,” he said. “If they come back again, we’ll fight them again, we’ll delay them.”
Glendale civic leader Kathy Masi urged the audience to contribute funds to help the coalition pay its legal fees.
“This will be a long fight, we don’t want to run out of money,” she said. “If everyone here is scared of what’s going to happen, you should be, because this is a real possibility.”
Later in the evening, Holden asked the people in the auditorium to also pack CB5’s hearing on the shelter on October 7 at Christ the King High School.
“We need to fill Christ the King’s auditorium and show DHS and the city that Glendale and Middle Village mean business,” he said. “We’re not going to take it.”
“That’s how we beat it back last time,” Holden added, “with everyone getting involved.”
However, not all of the people in attendance were opposed to the shelter. The Ridgewood Tenants Union said in a statement that they support the shelter openings in Ridgewood and Glendale, despite their belief that shelters are not the answer to the crisis.
“Homelessness has been on the rise in our very own zip code of 11385,” the group said, “and we believe that neighbors that are in need of shelter should be able to access it, as is their right.”