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Angry Protests Against Homeless Shelter Inspire Volunteers to Help

By Katie Honan | December 23, 2015 10:45am
 City Mission volunteers -- Patrick Chu and Lester Lin, top, and Karena Lin and Bryce Lin, bottom -- say they're mission was to help out the shelter families at the Pan Am.
City Mission volunteers -- Patrick Chu and Lester Lin, top, and Karena Lin and Bryce Lin, bottom -- say they're mission was to help out the shelter families at the Pan Am.
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DNAinfo/Katie Honan

ELMHURST — A few months after he started volunteering at the Boulevard Family Shelter inside the former Pan Am Hotel, Lester Lin's parents came home from church concerned.

“They said, ‘Lester, everyone at church said you’re ruining Elmhurst,’” he said, laughing as he remembered it.

“I told them, ‘Don’t listen to them, you know me.”

Since he started working inside the shelter, which now houses more than 200 homeless families, Lin's gotten used to that type of reaction from his community.

He was booed and escorted out by security at a rally at City Hall in 2014 after showing his support for the families, he said. He spoke last, and wanted only to "advocate for these families that have no voice."

"These older women at the end were like, 'you’re a terrible, terrible man,'" he said. "It was crazy."

Protesters yelled that they were going to tell the pastor of his church that he was helping at the controversial shelter, which has drawn opposition that has turned ugly since the city opened it without notifying elected officials or neighbors in June 2014, moving families in under cover of night.

Lin, a son of Taiwanese immigrants, said he wanted to help the families as soon as he heard about the shelter opening.

He first went to his nearly 285-year-old Newtown Church on Broadway, where the current congregation includes many recent Taiwanese immigrants. 

But most of his fellow parishioners were actively working to close the Pan Am, he said. They were concerned about crime, about the community changing as a result of the families moving in. They were scared, he said. 

So he and a few other members of the church branched out on their own, starting the nonprofit City Mission to "fill a basic need" in Elmhurst. 

They began with a welcome barbecue in the backyard of another church near the shelter, with music, food and drinks.

Their involvement has grown, after connecting with the city and the Department of Homeless Services. The agency said the group's been an "exceptional neighbor" to the shelter residents.

"Their mission was to build a bridge across ethnic, racial and class lines to welcome our families in need," an agency spokeswoman said.

Lester Lin and friends started City Mission to volunteer inside the Pan Am shelter in Elmhurst. (DNAinfo/Katie Honan)

City Mission offers a counseling group with the shelter's fathers and weekly tutoring sessions for kids, who get homework help and creative time with volunteers. 

“We just wanted to help,” said volunteer and board member Deborah Kwon, of Woodside.

Lin said his compassion for the families stems from his own experiences growing up in Queens with immigrant parents who often struggled financially. 

"I understand the pressure, I saw my parents go through it," he said.

He was briefly homeless at the age of 3 following a family dispute, he said. He slept outside a Catholic church in Flushing, where at night he'd plug his nightlight into an outdoor outlet. 

"Now I’m older and I get to experience the grace of things. If I see someone who is in a shelter, that compassion should really emulate through that," he said.

"You should be able to say, I went through tough times — I may have done it on my own, but that feeling sucks. And they might be going through it now, and that sucks."

His family has rebounded from their initial years as new immigrants, and Lin and his older brother own a title insurance company in Bayside. His parents go ballroom dancing every night and are comfortable. But the experience stayed with him.

"Seeing another person who’s also in need, you should just naturally be like, ‘I want to help that person.’ But that’s my own personal experience," he said. 

Lin — who has taken to calling himself "chief troublemaker" — said he takes the hostility as a sign that he's having an impact.

"As long as I’m not hurting someone, and someone is not wronged by me, fine. Then I know something is right," he said. 

At their weekly tutoring sessions, called the Care Group, volunteers give a much-needed break for parents.

They take over the building's large conference room for nearly two hours, where families often eat dinner or wait on a long line to heat up food in the shelter's only microwave.

Tiffany Celange, 27, brings her 7-year-old daughter for homework help a few times a month.

“It’s good with the program, it kind of helps me a little,” she said.

Volunteer Kathleen Ng, 20, works with a child from the Boulevard Family Shelter. (DNAinfo/Katie Honan)

City Mission has also expanded their work beyond the shelter, organizing an IDNYC registration center and hosting health fairs targeted toward immigrants.

Many people who attend the health fairs haven't seen a doctor since coming to the United States, fearing deportation if they didn't have proper immigration status, Lin said. 

Volunteer Patrick Chu, 25, is a nurse at NYU and helped organize the health fairs, bringing in doctors, nurses and medical students to check out nearly 200 residents.

He started volunteering as a reaction to neighborhood protests, he said. 

“I was angry at the way they acted and that motivated me to get involved,” he said.

The group's goal is to eventually branch out and serve the whole city — but they’re still working to change perspective in their own neighborhoods.

At their most recent health fair, a neighbor asked Lin why City Mission was still helping at the shelter.

“For the same reason we’re helping you,” he said.