ELMHURST — The homeless shelter at the Pan Am Hotel came under fire Monday night when hundreds of residents rallied outside a meeting between shelter operators and the city, and residents inside blasted officials, even booing a woman who urged compassion for families using the services.
The meeting at the Elks Lodge on Queens Boulevard and Goldsmith Street was called by Community Board 4 after the former hotel, which up until weeks ago was advertised as a hostel, was quietly turned into a homeless shelter for families without notice to the community.
Outside the meeting, which was open only to those who had pre-registered, several hundred protesters chanted and held signs voicing opposition to the shelter — and exchanged words with more than 20 shelter residents who came to offer their side, with children yelling "shame on you," "get a job," and "pay your rent."
One child held up a sign saying "2, 4, 6, 8, who do we NOT appreciate, hobos hobos hobos."
There are currently 90 families at the shelter, a number that has tripled since they began moving in three weeks ago, according to the Department of Homeless Services. The agency opened the shelter quickly because of a "crisis" situation in the shelter system, a representative said.
"I understand that, believe me I recognize, we did move in without notice. We're here to address it," said Douglas Apple, the executive vice president of Samaritan Village, which is operating the shelter.
Locals who spoke at the meeting, which lasted close to two hours, were overwhelmingly against the shelter and blasted the city for moving in without community discussion.
Many spoke about safety, schools that are already overcrowded in District 24 having to take in additional students and problems at another shelter, the Metro Motel, just a few blocks away on Queens Boulevard.
While most locals at the meeting were against the shelter, one speaker, Odette Lupis, 74, said she was able to stay in her apartment through the city's SCRIE program, a rent-increase abatement program for seniors, and urged the audience to "think outside the box."
"I could be your next homeless person," she said.
Lupis, who lived in Astoria for 64 years, said she worked for three decades as a photojournalist and is now looking for work teaching.
"Not everybody walks in and out and does the shenanigans," she said. "Some of us look like you, and by the grace of God, each one of you could be in the same spot."
After Lupis suggested that upset locals try to work with the city to help shelter families instead of protesting, locals booed her and told her to sit down, prompting CB4 chairman Lou Walker to ask people to settle down.
Bill Kregler, a member of Community Education Council 24, said he wasn't sure how the overcrowded district would accommodate the new children.
"To say that you try to come into the community without any impact — well, we just saw 90 families where I don't have a spot for you in my district to put those kids," he said to Apple.
One resident who spoke outside, Kwong Li, 37, said he was concerned about safety and how the city opened the shelter.
"We are at a public hearing after the fact," he said. "I thought this was a democracy. I don't live in China anymore."
Lisa Black, an assistant commissioner with DHS, said the shelter was created because of an emergency situation and that all 216 rooms might be used.
"We are in a crisis situation where we have more families coming in than we have families exiting, so therefore it doesn't create a vacancy," she said.
"Until we can create additional capacity elsewhere in the system, we will utilize the building that we're currently in."
The number of homeless families increased nearly 10 percent between May 2013 and May 2014, from 10,104 to 11,080, according to DHS statistics.
The number of homeless families has increased 50 percent, from 7,319 in May of 2008.
Black pointed to the fact that CB4 didn't have any shelters before Pan Am — the Metro Motel is in Community Board 2, which covers Sunnyside, Woodside and Long Island City. It's the 21st shelter for Queens, she said, while the Brooklyn and The Bronx each have 79 shelters.
"They probably have it good now, but anybody could struggle," said Joshua Leyla, 21, who moved into the shelter with his 3-month-old son, Joshua, after losing his apartment in The Bronx.
Leyla, who works as an engraver, said he was disturbed by the crowd and especially by the children, who held signs and yelled "shame on you" and "get a job" at the small crowd of shelter residents.
"They don't know until it happens to them," he said. "You don't know until you go through it."