A majority of Queens’s City Council members and two of the borough’s community groups are at odds over the future of the erstwhile Queens House of Detention. The Council members want it to operate again as a jail. The community groups—no surprise—are opposed. How about a novel compromise that would address a grave city affliction: turning the facility into a homeless residence?
A long time ago I happened to obtain a good look inside the edifice. No, I wasn’t a prisoner; I was a summer intern in the Queens District Attorney’s office (no, I’m not a lawyer either) and the other interns and I were taken on a tour of the lockup as a “perk.” It was an egregiously nightmarish experience: the milieu radiated rage and latent (at least while I was there) violence. Reopening the premises as a jail seems madness to me, no improvement over the horrors that prison reformers currently condemn—rightly so—on Rikers Island.
But the building was, essentially, built to house people and by stripping away the bars and the other grim jailhouse trappings it might become a viable and—dare I say it?—humane habitat. (And, I would imagine, less expensive to maintain than a penal institution.)
Would those same civic groups mentioned earlier welcome turning the one-time jail into homeless housing? Probably not. But surely those associations’ and their community’s xenophobia would be less inflamed in the long run by poor, unfortunate men and women lacking shelter—victims, for the most part, of bad breaks—than by detainees awaiting criminal trials.
Moreover, at some point a mayoral administration that is in earnest about carrying out its agenda—and Mayor de Blasio is passionate about initiating solutions to New York City’s housing crisis—has to resolve that it won’t pander to any given neighborhood’s more sinister instincts.