Story, photos and video by Fern White-Hilsenrath
Chanting “No Shelter” and “Protect Our Children,” hundreds of College Point residents gathered on the steps of City Hall on April 26 to protest a plan to open a men’s homeless shelter in their community.
The protesters carried placards reading “No One Asked Us” and “Too Close to Our Schools,” braving a downpour and strong winds to voice their opposition to the city’s intention to convert an industrial warehouse at 127-03 20th Ave. into a 200-bed men’s homeless shelter.
“Don’t get me wrong, we’re not against homeless people,” said Michael Deng of the CP Residents’ Coalition and one of the main organizers of the protest. “We want to have them taken care of properly, but obviously by putting a homeless shelter in the middle of a community which is 90 percent residential with five schools, 3,000 kids and hundreds of residences, it’s not the solution.”
At a time of growing homelessness in New York City, College Point has emerged as a testing ground of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s strategy to fix the escalating crisis.
As of March, 63,029 homeless people, including 15,193 families, were sleeping in city shelters, according to the non-profit Coalition for the Homeless. When de Blasio took office in 2014, the number of homeless in the city was 51,470, according to city statistics.
The College Point shelter is included in the mayor’s 2017 plan, “Turning the Tide on Homelessness,” which envisions creating a new network of traditional shelters in neighborhoods across the five boroughs by 2021. This would replace the existing model of housing the homeless in commercial hotels or “cluster” apartments in residential buildings where there are few or no services on site.
The mayor has said the new neighborhood shelter system would allow the homeless to be housed near their original communities and closer to jobs, schools, houses of worship and support systems needed to help them get back on their feet.
But for residents of College Point, the proximity of the proposed shelter to five schools — a pre-K program, two elementary schools, a middle school, and an all-girls Catholic high school — is particularly concerning, and is a main reason that many in the community oppose the shelter.
Several elected officials have thrown their support behind the residents. “I think the city is facing a huge homeless crisis but it is being mismanaged by City Hall completely,” said state Sen. John Lui, a Democrat representing the 11th District, which includes College Point, in an interview.
College Point is a residential neighborhood in northeastern Queens. According to Census Bureau data, College Point has about 24,000 residents, who are mainly a mix of whites, Asians and Hispanics. At the April 26 protest, residents wore bright blue T-shirts with the phrase, “Solutions, Not Shelters,” written in English, Mandarin and Spanish.
Councilman Paul Vallone, who represents College Point, said the community was not given a chance to give its input before the plan was announced. “What’s worse, the city’s policy for siting shelters allows greedy developers to profit from the homelessness crisis while displaying wanton disregard for the effect on our community,” Vallone said in an interview.
Much of College Point’s anger is directed at the homeless shelter’s developer, David Levitan, whose company has already converted several sites in other boroughs into shelters. A call to Levitan’s office seeking comment was not returned.
“David Levitan, part owner of Liberty One Group, has made a name for himself by building and converting multiple sites throughout the city into shelters and profiting millions,” Vallone said.
In College Point, residents are preparing for a legal showdown to try to block the planned shelter. They created the CP Resident’s Coalition, built a website and a Facebook page. They have written dozens of letters to their elected officials and mounted several protests, two of which were on the steps of City Hall.
The coalition has also retained the services of a lawyer, Christopher Murray, who is a partner at the firm Ruskin Moscou Faltischek on Long Island, and a specialist in the areas of land use and environmental real estate. Murray has already been successful in getting shelter plans for Glendale, in Queens, scrapped. He also has pending action for South Ozone Park, where residents are fighting another city shelter plan.
According to Murray, the city has violated state law by skipping an environmental impact assessment. Murray said he wants the courts to put the brakes on the planned shelter in College Point until an official review is done.
“When they go through this environmental impact process, they will realize this is not an appropriate spot for a shelter,” Murray said in an interview. “Stresses on the police and fire and safety services, traffic and transportation issues, parks and recreation, the impact on schools – all these things are supposed to be looked at and considered in the context of this full plan.”
At the April 26 protest, some residents expressed frustration with the way the city had handled the selection of College Point as a site for a homeless shelter.
“It happened with no one even knowing. It’s just not a proper community location,” said Joanna Heim, who has lived in College Point for 45 years. “We haven’t heard anything from City Hall. It’s just full steam ahead with the shelter.”