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Jail Has Better Food Than Homeless Shelter Without Kitchens, Residents Say

By Katie Honan | May 11, 2015 7:34am
 Residents show a recent dinner at the Pan Am shelter -- two pieces of chicken.
Residents show a recent dinner at the Pan Am shelter -- two pieces of chicken.
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DNAinfo/Katie Honan

ELMHURST — Life in the nearly year-old Pan Am homeless shelter is worse than serving time in jail, some residents told DNAinfo New York.

The facility, which opened in June 2014 to help house the record-number of New Yorkers living in shelters, which was 56,602 as of May 5 and included 11,600 families, crams clients into tiny rooms without kitchens — against city, state and federal guidelines.

Instead, the 216-room shelter operator, Samaritan Village, offers three meals a day. But the food is "disgusting" and "garbage," according to nearly a dozen residents, all mothers, who spoke to DNAinfo about how they have found it difficult and expensive to live in a shelter without kitchens.

 Nearly a dozen mothers living inside the shelter at the former Pan Am Hotel described terrible conditions inside.
Nearly a dozen mothers living inside the shelter at the former Pan Am Hotel described terrible conditions inside.
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DNAinfo/Katie Honan

“The food is still frozen, it’s terrible,” said one mother, who has a 9-year-old daughter. DNAinfo is withholding the mothers' names because they fear retaliation for speaking to the media.

When she moved into the shelter, also know as the Boulevard Family Center, in January she got sick with what she believed to be food poisoning her first week there, she said.

“It’s exhausting when you don’t get enough food stamps because [the] shelter says they provide food," she said. "I did time — the food was better in jail."

Another resident estimates she spends $60 a day on food for her and two teenaged sons, including one with special needs. She usually picks up dinner at McDonald's across Queens Boulevard or at a nearby deli.

“If we had kitchen, I’d spend $20,” she said. “Food is expensive.”

Her tiny room, where her two sons share one bed, is equipped with a small refrigerator but she's forbidden from keeping a microwave.

The one communal microwave broke weeks ago and hasn't been fixed, residents said. 

Another mom of three teenagers said she used to buy meals at a local supermarket and heat them in the microwave, but couldn't anymore since it broke.

“My kids refuse to eat that food,” she said of provided meals.

“They want us to save money here? How?” 

To make sure the rooms don't have cooking items, administrators conduct sweeps, they said. Cleaning items like bleach are banned, which a DHS spokeswoman said is to prevent it from being ingested by children or used as a weapon.

“They treat us like we’re in jail," said one mom who has lived at the Pan Am with her infant son since January. "I did jail time, jail was better.”

Samaritan Village referred all questions about conditions at the shelter to the Department of Homeless Services.

A spokeswoman for DHS said the agency "has completed significant work to ensure that the Boulevard Family Residence is a safe and appropriate temporary housing site for homeless families."

They disputed residents' claims about the lack of microwaves, saying there were two working ones at the shelter.

DHS did not respond to questions about the kitchens. New York City's Administrative Code states shelters for families should have "cooking facilities including but not limited to secured burners and other equipment as may be necessary to prepare meals for a family, a kitchen-style sink."

Other issues residents complained of — including heat and hot water issues and air conditioning not working — had been addressed, the spokeswoman said.

"We will remain vigilant in providing families the services they need while in shelter," she said.

The living conditions are a sharp contrast to the agency's lower Manhattan headquarters, which have undergone extensive renovations since last summer which furnished them with flat-screen TVs and $429 chairs, DNAinfo New York first reported.

In April, the Daily News reported on a "rat colony" living behind the shelter, feasting on garbage piled up in a lot. 

Residents said they have had issues with roaches and bed bugs — a claim a DHS spokeswoman disputed — and that many other issues, including broken beds, didn't get attention until the press reported on them.

One mom who moved into the shelter in February with her two young daughters said conditions have just gotten worse as the months have gone on.

"It's not safe here," she said. "It's disgusting."