Catherine Bakery, a patisserie, recently moved from downtown Flushing to College Point in Queens to save on rent costs. But now, the store will be across the street from a 200-person men’s homeless shelter, scheduled to open by September 2019.
Cindy Yang, a cashier at the bakery on 127th St., is worried that the business will suffer. “Customers won’t come to the café, if they see homeless men idling,” she said.
The proposed shelter at 127-03 20th Ave. has ignited intense controversy among College Point residents, storeowners and school officials for the last two months. There have been rallies, online petitions and a call to raise funds to sue the city if the shelter opens.
Much of the resistance is based on the proximity of the shelter to two elementary schools, one junior high and one all-girls private school, along with several day care centers and four businesses in the immediate area.
Hundreds of anxious residents showed up Monday night to a contentious town hall -style meeting with Department of Homeless Services officials and representatives of the not-for-profit organization, Westhab, which will provide services at the proposed shelter.
The atmosphere was raucous during the three-hour meeting at P.S. 29 in College Point. When DHS First Deputy Commissioner Jackie Bray tried to address residents’ concerns, the crowd drowned her out with boos and shouts of “liar.”
“I always know that when communities come out it’s really a signal that people are invested in their community, that they’re invested in what happens to their community,” Bray said as she pleaded with the crowd to show some “respect” and “decorum.”
“First of all, we have men, women and families in our shelter system who are from this community,” she told the crowd. She said the department “is trying very hard to open shelters where we have no shelters, so that people who are experiencing homelessness from those communities can be sheltered closer to the important social supports that we know are critical to returning people to stability.”
But residents were not persuaded. “I feel College Point is a very generous community, we’ve always helped,” said Roseanne Leone, 56. “What is it is this community can’t take anymore. And then to put it right there with all these kids? Insane.”
Days before the meeting, a local locksmith, Mario Turriago, explained why he has a jar on his desk for residents to drop donations against the shelter.
“Who would want to come and shop when there are homeless people roaming around this whole area?” said Turriago, owner of Spectrum Locks, on 129th St., steps away from the proposed shelter. “Who knows, they can start selling drugs, panhandle or rob customers outside the stores. Why create a problem when we have no problem now.”
Carol Chen, owner of a day care center in the neighborhood, said that almost all parents of children at her center have asked her about the shelter.
“If parents move out because of the shelter, we would have to shut down our business,” said Chen, who has been running Best Child Care for more than 15 years. “We have 30 children studying in two classrooms every day, I don’t understand why they can’t put the shelter where there are less people.”
But Lin Chenwei, father of a 3-year-old girl and a homeowner in College Point, thinks that the shelter should be in a crowded neighborhood.
“I am not against homeless people, I am thinking about my wife walking alone late at night,” said Chenwei. “So, I really prefer if they put them in Downtown Manhattan where people are watching and can call the cops.”
Kelly Vega, a homeless woman at Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue, said isolation is not the solution.
“Shelters should be built in an environment where we have access to things, everyone else has access to,” said Vega. “If you want homeless people to prosper and get jobs, being around other homeless people doesn’t make any sense, they need to be where they have access to food and education.”
Jamie Powlovich, executive director for the Coalition for Homeless Youth, said that shelters should be equally placed in all neighborhoods.
“Homeless people in the city must have an opportunity to remain in their existing community,” said Powlovich. “Individuals criminalize and stereotype this population a lot, and it’s unfortunate that we often see a ‘Not in My Backyard’ approach.”