In a city not known for peace and quiet, walking the streets of Maspeth, Queens, can feel almost surreal, as if one has somehow turned a corner into a faraway suburb, a neighborhood that resembles the south shore of Staten Island more than it resembles neighboring Woodside. American flags hang on doors and flap above manicured lawns. On Sundays, a few people gather outside family restaurants with signs advertising “Pasta Night”; popular country songs play from passing cars, softly. Flyers notify passersby that the precinct needs more police officers. The few residents one sees on the street, whether they’re walking their dogs or washing their cars, are reluctant to talk to strangers about the place where they live.
“I’m good,” one man told me on a recent afternoon. “Fuck off.” He declined to give his name.
Maspeth has long prided itself on preserving a “friendly small-town atmosphere” in the big city; for decades the neighborhood has remained insulated from the hubbub of metropolitan life and from the city’s politics as well. Residents here are hesitant to describe themselves as Democrats or Republicans — first and foremost, they’re people who live in Maspeth. The only political trends they care about are the ones that have the potential to affect the neighborhood, so in recent years the most prominent concerns have included street improvements, littering, and noise generated by the Long Island Expressway.
When it comes to larger issues like poverty and homelessness, Maspeth has historically averted its eyes. But as a brutal housing market has forced more residents across the city to seek shelter, the de Blasio administration is seeking to distribute homeless services more equitably throughout the boroughs, which means building shelters in predominantly white middle-class neighborhoods that have never had them before. In Maspeth, which was intended to be a prototype for this initiative, news of a shelter has generated months of venomous protest and political upheaval, pitting residents against homeless men and throwing a councilmember’s future into question. And with nearly a hundred more facilities slated to open over the next five years, the events of the past year seem to signal that the worst is yet to come.
Maspeth has always seen homelessness as somebody else’s problem. In 2012, as the city’s shelter population was skyrocketing, Community Board 5 (which includes Maspeth and two neighboring majority white communities) stated in an annual report that “any plans to build large facilities to house the homeless in residential communities is [sic] unwise.” The report went on to suggest that homeless residents could build their own homes on some of the neighborhood’s many vacant lots: “Why not hire professionals to teach people who are without a stable place to live to renovate and/or build housing for themselves? This would provide more housing at a lower cost while teaching people a skill.”
Last summer, though, the de Blasio administration put an end to Maspeth’s days of shoulder-shrugging. In August 2016, the city’s Department of Homeless Services announced it would turn a Holiday Inn Express near the Long Island Expressway into a shelter for the homeless. The decision was a precursor to Mayor Bill De Blasio’s larger Turning the Tide plan, which aims to get a handle on the growing homeless population (it currently stands at 60,000) by opening nearly a hundred shelters over the next five years. The city plans to distribute these shelters in proportion to where people in the shelter system list their most recent address, which means that while many of the new facilities will be built in the Bronx and central Brooklyn, where there is already a high concentration of shelters, some will be built in middle- and working-class neighborhoods where there have never been any resources for the homeless until now. DHS says 330 people in the shelter system list their most recent address in Queens Community Board 5, which currently has no shelters.
The mayor’s announcement sent Maspeth residents into overdrive. Hundreds of residents turned out in front of the Holiday Inn to protest the decision in an unprecedented display of community opposition. At a series of hearings held by the city, they showed up with shirts and signs reading “STOP DUMPING ON MASPETH” and “MASPETH LIVES MATTER,” with one shouting, “This is not East New York!” They took buses to picket the Brooklyn home of Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Steven Banks, threatened to vote city councilmember Elizabeth Crowley out of office if she did not stop the shelter, and accused the city of fabricating the number of homeless people who claim to be from the neighborhood. In the Facebook community group Maspeth 11378, residents raged about the negative effects the hotel conversion would have on their neighborhood, with a “110 member crime wave” foremost among their fears.
In response, Crowley, along with State Senator Joseph Addabbo and State Assemblymember Margaret Markey, filed a lawsuit against the city to halt the use of the Holiday Inn, alleging that the hotel could not legally serve as a homeless shelter because its rooms lacked proper kitchen setups. Although DHS plans to phase out the use of hotels as shelters over the next few years, it has housed the homeless in hotels throughout Queens for years without legal incident; the lawsuit was tossed out by a judge as baseless less than two months later.
Following the extreme reaction of Maspeth residents, DHS initially indicated it would cancel plans to turn the hotel into a shelter, saying it would house only some homeless men there. But then, in a reversal of the reversal, De Blasio and DHS announced in February that the city would open a new full-service homeless shelter in Community Board 5 whether residents liked it or not. Community groups greeted the announcement with renewed furor.
DHS has provided no further information about the proposed full-service shelter. A spokesperson for the agency would not go into detail about DHS’s long-term plans for homeless services in the neighborhood, but told the Voice the agency is “committed to completely ending the use of all cluster and hotel sites citywide—and that includes the commercial hotel” in Maspeth, where there are presently 57 homeless men residing in half of the hotel’s 115 rooms.
Interviewed outside the hotel, two homeless residents said staff are rude and unfair to them, describing their treatment as “fucking horrible.”
“They don’t help us like they’d help someone who was just staying here,” one said. “If we’re walking down the hall and we see someone who’s a tourist, we’ll nod and smile and everything, but if a manager sees you doing that, they’ll pull you aside and tell you you’re not allowed to talk to them.”
The residents, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal from the staff, also said that Maspeth residents they encounter in the corner store or the nearby McDonald’s regard them with fear and suspicion.
“It’s just because we’re not white,” one said, “they’ll give us weird looks, they’ll cross the street to avoid us.” These men said they understand why some people wouldn’t want a shelter in their community, and said the animosity of Maspeth residents wouldn’t bother them so much if their situation in the hotel were better. They also both said the city should simply be providing housing to people experiencing homelessness instead of expanding the shelter system.
Even as Maspeth community groups have continued to fight the Holiday Inn shelter — suing for the release of related public records and arguing it’s illegal for homeless people to stay there because the industrial zoning permits only short-stay hotels — infuriated residents have sought to hold someone accountable. So far, their ire has been directed at Crowley, a well-connected Democrat who unseated her Republican predecessor in 2008 on a wave of turnout for Barack Obama.
Crowley is a Middle Village native, but the progressive positions she’s taken since her election have caused some locals to sour on her. Despite Crowley’s lawsuit and her stated opposition to the shelter, many locals see her as a pawn of de Blasio and of the Democratic machine (her cousin is U.S. representative and career politician Joseph Crowley), too willing to cave in and let DHS’s shelter plans proceed. (Councilmembers have no official power to influence such matters, which is why Crowley turned to the courts.) On the Maspeth 11378 Facebook group, a number of outraged locals residents have described her as a pawn of the mayor, hissing that “a vote for Elizabeth Crowley is a vote for De Blasio.” Another wondered, “Is it Cronyism or Crowleyism?” And sure enough, a challenger has emerged just in time for this year’s city council election, hoping to capitalize on residents’ near-universal anger by staking his campaign on opposition to homeless services in Maspeth.
Bob Holden is president of the Juniper Park Civic Association, an influential community group representing Maspeth and nearby Middle Village. Though he’s never served in an elected office (he teaches graphic design at a CUNY school in Brooklyn), he has the status of a de facto spokesperson for the neighborhood. He has been quoted in dozens of articles over the past decade raging against anything that disturbs or annoys locals: LaGuardia noise, a nearby hipster event center, exclusion of Catholic kids from a local school, and, yes, any attempt by the city to provide homeless services to residents who live nearby. In his capacity as leader of the civic association, he formed a task force that downzoned significant portions of Maspeth and other nearby neighborhoods and aided the police in, as his website puts it, combating “drug dens and prostitution.”
Holden’s platform certainly sounds like a Republican’s: He calls for increased police presence in the precinct, vigorously opposes closing Rikers, and wants make it harder for kids from other neighborhoods to attend Maspeth schools. Earlier this year, though, he ran against Crowley in the Democratic primary. After she defeated him, he switched to the Republican ticket and vowed to “take on the Democratic machine.” Crowley accused him of pulling a bait-and-switch on voters, running in the Democratic primary just to give him another chance to beat her.
Holden’s campaign website cites his opposition to homeless services in the neighborhood as one of his main credentials, and more than a few Maspeth residents may be willing to follow him into battle as a result. In a recent article, he complained that the men staying in the Holiday Inn were being “let loose on a middle-class, a working-class neighborhood with literally no services.”
Crowley beat her last Republican challenger by almost 20 percentage points, but she’s also the first Democrat to hold the seat. Her campaign has collected more funding than Holden’s so far, but it’s difficult to overstate the extent to which the shelter controversy has influenced public opinion of Crowley. Even if she is re-elected, the comparative success of Holden’s candidacy will probably show that a large proportion of residents now view her as a traitor to neighborhood interests.
At press time, Holden could not be reached for comment. Crowley responded to emailed questions about the city’s shelter plans by saying that shelters generally are “not cost efficient and [do] not address the root causes of homelessness.”
Maspeth is not the first neighborhood where DHS has awoken a sleeping dragon, and it will probably not be the last neighborhood to see significant political upheaval as a result of the mayor’s plan.
Two years ago, in the adjoining, predominantly white neighborhood of Glendale, residents came out in full force to oppose the conversion of a disused factory into a homeless shelter. First they argued the building was unsafe for reuse; then, when it was deemed safe, they argued it would be nobler to reuse it as a factory. In Bellerose, Long Island City, and most recently Riverdale and Sunnyside — all majority-white neighborhoods — there has been similar protest and outcry over DHS’s decision to house homeless individuals in nearby hotels. Some protesters make a show of saying that hotel shelters are unfit places to house the homeless (de Blasio’s plan calls for their elimination by 2023, and DHS insists they’re temporary “bridge” measures) or lamenting the lack of opportunity for community input; others announce their fears of being “inundated” by people from other neighborhoods who will make their community “unsafe.”
“We do find instances of opposition like this to be somewhat disturbing,” says Giselle Routhier, policy director at the Coalition for the Homeless, “especially because we would argue these residents’ fears about crime and property values are unfounded.” Routhier adds that the city has the upper hand in legal battles like the one over the Holiday Inn, and individual community areas can’t stop the city from providing services on their turf.
The opposition to homeless shelters in these neighborhoods mirrors the racially charged opposition to affordable housing that has appeared across the country. In the past few years, such cities as Houston, Chicago, and San Francisco have seen majority-white homeowners lash out against initiatives that have sought to spread affordable housing around different neighborhoods. Perhaps because of New York’s long history of rent control and presently vicious housing market, there has been comparatively less outrage here over affordable housing. In homeowner communities, however, people experiencing homelessness have become the outsiders du jour. Residents have blasted de Blasio and DHS for “dumping” on middle-class communities, while Long Island City councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer has complained that his “community now houses more homeless individuals than it produces.”
In fact, the city’s plan is specifically designed to give people who enter the shelter system a chance to stay in their own neighborhoods. The Coalition has cautiously supported the plan on these grounds, arguing that people who are sheltered near their home neighborhoods have an easier time getting back on their feet.
Fewer people enter the shelter system from Maspeth than from most other city neighborhoods, but residents’ flat-out rejection of any and all shelter plans seems to indicate an unwillingness to reckon with the fact that homelessness can befall anyone at any time. Rather than accept that their neighbors may need support, these residents would rather hold on to the notion that poverty and homelessness happen somewhere else. In viciously opposing any kind of shelters, they’re showing what’s underneath Maspeth’s “friendly small-town atmosphere,” and revealing that the neighborhood’s sense of community is only skin deep.
An initial version of this story repeated earlier reports that Maspeth protestors had shouted “Go back to East New York!” in response to the homeless shelter. In fact, video of the protest shows that the actual words were “This is not East New York!”