Article and photos by Andrea Blanco | May 26, 2021
Luis Ortiz sits on a bench at the Queensbridge Houses North’s park in Long Island City. A few kids play in the background while he dozes off. His head tilts left. Right. Then left again. His body is relaxed, aware he has nowhere to be. The air is chilly with the last remains of winter so he wears his Army jacket. Later, he’ll say he doesn’t want to talk about the four years he spent as a soldier.
Ortiz stays out of trouble, ditching his roommates from the Veteran Army shelter around the corner, walking around Queensbridge instead.
Like Ortiz, many other homeless have immersed themselves in the life of Queensbridge, the largest public housing development in the country. Some walk around killing time, staying out of neighbors’ way. Others sleep their evident intoxication out on the benches. They know they are not welcome. Inevitably, there is friction between Queensbridge tenants and the homeless temporarily living in the shelters. Residents also feel pressured by the rising number of luxury developments, a clear sign of gentrification intruding in the neighborhood and its culture.
Resident Pamela Shepherd says she’s had threatening encounters with the homeless when approached by them on the streets.
“I don’t like them lurking around,” said Shepherd, who has lived in the development for more than three decades.
Her neighbor Tony Hood agrees that homeless are a problem to the area “because they are around corners doing drugs, close to children.” Shepherd is especially scared that as her granddaughter walks down to school every day, she has to walk past Howard Johnson, the hotel turned shelter that has been Ortiz’s home for the last six months.
Howard Johnson, and Wingate, another shelter facing it across 12th Street, did not always house the homeless. They’re among the 67 commercial hotels-turned-shelters in the city, according to the Department of Homeless Services. Plans to use city hotels as temporary shelters for 6,000 homeless were announced in April last year by Mayor Bill de Blasio.
The decision came after the city concluded some city shelters were not spacious enough for the homeless to safely social distance, with numerous residents having to share rooms. But the placement of the shelters in the area puts a strain on the growing housing issues in Queensbridge, as gentrification and new development are on the rise.
“We will use those hotels aggressively as a tool to support homeless individuals to strike the right balance in our shelters,’’ de Blasio said at the April 11, 2020 press conference.
Employees of the hotels like David Anderson, who worked at Howard Johnson pre-COVID-19, were able to keep their jobs thanks to the city, given the hotels would have otherwise shut down due to the pandemic.
“The city had a lot of misplaced veterans and some of the shelters got closed down so they took over,” said Anderson.
The decision to bring homeless people to Queensbridge has been met with criticism by its residents. They feel residents of more wealthy areas are being heard, as homeless staying at the Lucerne shelter on Manhattan’s Upper West Side were moved after neighbors complained, while Queensbridge tenants’ concerns were not addressed throughout the pandemic. At an April 6, 2021 news conference, de Blasio announced plans to return the homeless to city-run facilities. In reality, the logistics could take months.
Nichole, a resident of Queensbridge who declined to give her last name because she works for the city, believes shelters in neighborhoods where minorities live are especially problematic.
According to data from the last American Community Survey, the population in the Queensbridge-Ravenswood-Long Island City area is predominantly Black at 48 percent, followed by Hispanic at 33 percent. The community district 1 in Long Island City has seven shelters.
“They say, ‘you’re Black, they’re Black. You take care of them’,” Nichole said. She thinks crime has been on the rise because of the homeless. The evidence related to crime and the homeless in the area is conflicting. In the week from May 10 to May 16 specifically, crime in the area rose 115 percent from the same week last year, when the homeless had been recently moved. But according to records from the NYPD, in 2020 there were 33 percent less felony and 150 percent less misdemeanor arrests at homeless shelters than in 2019.
Jesse Laymon, a candidate for city council in district 26, which includes Queensbridge, thinks stereotypical ways to see the homeless are dangerous.
“Homelessness should not be a death sentence,” says Laymon, whose father, a veteran with PTSD, died homeless. “Thinking of my own father, I know homeless New Yorkers are people who deserve dignity and a place to live.”
According to Coalition for the Homeless, homelessness in New York is at its highest since the Great Depression of the 1930’s, with at least 122,000 homeless sleeping at municipal centers every night. John Browne, a homeless veteran staying in the same shelter as Ortiz, says different kinds of therapy like anger management or veteran support are provided, but many fail to reach out for help.
Laymon believes there are different solutions for the general spectrum of homelessness. Temporary solutions like facilities for individuals to stay just the night are still needed as many are not looking for a definitive solution to their condition of homelessness.
The new homeless shelters are not the only new arrivals to the neighborhood. An increase in high-end real-estate development is also changing the area and making housing more expensive. “There has been a rise of skyscrapers and empty buildings that nobody can afford. It pushes out people and current residents are affected with higher rent,” said Steven Raga, another candidate for city council in district 26.
Although housing insecurity is rising in New York City, in Long Island City 60 percent of the development built since 2018 sits empty, Marketproof CEO Kael Goodman told The New York Times in July 2020. The 2014-2018 American Community Survey found that there are 251 percent more vacant units in the area than in the 2006-2010 period.
The rise in development has naturally caused gentrification, with rent in median dollars rising almost 14 percent. According to the Long Island City Partnership, approximately 250 development projects are completed, 160 are under construction and 180 are proposed in the area.
Out of the approximately 24,000 housing units that are completed, just 756 are affordable housing.
Certain buildings are forced to accommodate a percentage of their units for affordable housing. Raga says that percentage should be raised, as more families are struggling with housing in the middle of the pandemic, and the homeless who want to leave the shelter system, like Rob Wood, can’t find affordable housing.
“My landlord sold the building I used to live in, and I couldn’t find a home,” said Wood. Although he has a job he can’t independently afford housing yet.
Stan Morse, candidate for Queens Borough president and lead organizer for Justice For All Coalition, an advocacy group that seeks to empower tenants, believes current elected officials are to blame.
“They’re pro-development and are putting their friends on the [community] board. These people have a collective entrance in real estate, so decisions are going to be made like they have in the past,” said Morse.
But not all Queensbridge Houses are troubled by the arrival of the homeless.
“They deserve a chance,” said a neighbor who prefers to go by “King” due to past criminal history. “They have to live somewhere.”
A community fridge on 40th Avenue and 10th Street, right next to a bodega, is a microcosm for what the neighborhood is going through.. Its colors are bright and “Queensbridge!” shines in white aerosol paint. A few bagels wrapped in plastic and portions of corn in plastic cups are scattered inside the lower shelf, but it remains mostly empty. The fridge, broken. Whether food was taken before it could be filled again, or if it was never filled to capacity to begin with, is not clear.
John Browne knows.“The whole point of coming here is getting out,” he says.