Ask most New Yorkers to point to Maspeth on a map and they’d shrug their shoulders, probably gesturing in the direction of far-out Queens or Brooklyn, where blue collar white neighborhoods seemingly pop up from time to time in the news for stunning acts of hatred or, well, other disturbing acts of hatred.
But unlike a Bensonhurst or Howard Beach, Maspeth is actually located well within the city’s core, just across the Midtown Tunnel from Manhattan, running along the stagnant waters of the Newtown Creek. That also makes Maspeth, a neighborhood cut off from most of the city’s transit infrastructure, and one that’s 75% white while sitting next to two of the most diverse neighborhoods in the world, part of Mayor de Blasio’s hotel-to-shelter corridor. The corridor, which currently runs along Queens Boulevard from Elmhurst to Woodside, is made up of several hotels that have been converted from low-end overnighters to homeless shelters, as City Hall scrambles to find room for the city’s skyrocketing homeless population. That corridor is now making a left turn into Maspeth, where there are currently no homeless shelters at all.
Since the beginning of August, Maspeth residents have been doing everything in their power to stop it. And for now at least, they believe they’ve succeeded. According to Assemblywoman Margaret Markey, City Hall has backed off a plan for an October 1 opening for the Holiday Inn turned Homeless Shelter, after Maspeth residents turned out in droves to protest the placement of a shelter for neighborhood families facing homelessness.
That’s not the case according to City Hall, however. A source tells the Voice that the opening “will not be significantly delayed” and that the hotel will begin to accept residents this October.
That’s probably not the news that Maspeth residents wanted to hear. Their outpouring of grievances began at a community meeting in early August, when Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Steven Banks was shouted down by hundreds of residents who wouldn’t let Banks finish a sentence about the planned conversion. According to a video obtained by Gothamist, Banks said that one resident had asked him to send the homeless families “back to East New York.” Banks informed the residents that the shelter would be housing hundreds of their own neighbors.
Protests grew throughout August as residents lined up local politicians against the shelter, including city councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, who then, with her state assembly and state senate counterparts, put together a lawsuit against the city to stop the opening of the shelter.
Holding daily protests outside of the Holiday Inn, residents, some wearing “Make America Great Again” hats and “No Homeless Shelter In Maspeth” shirts, continued to pour out unstemmed vitriol against the idea of any form of shelter being placed in their neighborhood. The overwhelmingly white protesters warned of a situation similar to what’s playing out in nearby Elmhurst, where the Pan-Am Hotel is on its way to becoming a permanent homeless shelter after first being announced as only an emergency one. Still, despite vociferous protests by some members of the community there as well, many have welcomed the families to the neighborhood, and there’s been no discernible rise in crime or incidents related to the shelter.
In Maspeth, tensions reached a head last Wednesday night as hundreds of residents crammed into the Knockdown Center where they symbolically turned their back on commissioner Banks while one woman held up both her middle fingers at him.
“What don’t you understand, commissioner? These shelters are all failures, and you’re not going to have a failure in the town of Maspeth,” one speaker said.
“Commissioner, you have a legal and moral obligation to the taxpayers. Not to the homeless,” said another. One resident, Lance Lovejoy, an electrician, had on a shirt that said, “Mayor de Blasio: Go Fuck Yourself.”
Last month, a new report from the Coalition for the Homeless called out the state for its failure to follow up on a promise to build 20,000 new units of supportive housing for the homeless while the city’s shelter population reached new highs this past June. City Hall has stressed the need to move away from the tactic of turning hotels into shelters, but left with not many other options, it has continued to spread them throughout the city, as cheap hotel construction has even anticipated the use of these hotels as shelters by the city.
While it has denied a delay, City Hall hasn’t yet announced a specific date for the opening of the Maspeth shelter. In a statement to the Voice, Lauren Gray, a spokesperson for the Department of Homeless Services, said “as we announced at two community forums, we are continuing to review the proposal, and the start date will be determined as a result of the review. ”