The housing crisis in New York City, and the lack of viable solutions to housing the homeless and preventing homelessness, has become one of the most polarizing topics of this decade.
Nowhere is that illustrated more than in my district, where a public hearing on Monday in Middle Village regarding a proposed shelter for 200 men saw tensions boil over into a shouting match that garnered citywide attention. This is far from the first time a community has vocally opposed such a large shelter, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. While some of the comments made that night were way out of line, I will never attempt to silence the opinions of others. Those opinions show exactly how some of my constituents feel they have been treated by City Hall.
In turn, the criticism of my district came flooding in, and I won’t try to silence those opinions either. In fact, many of the people who spoke in favor of the proposed shelter at the meeting, and those who were critical on social media, agree that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to build 90 shelters around the city is not the answer to the crisis at hand. So why then should we roll over and accept the mayor’s plan without putting up a fight?
When the mayor released his “Turning the Tide on Homelessness” plan in 2017, one of its main goals was to keep homeless New Yorkers in the communities they have roots in, and encourage communities to “work with the City to solve problems and find locations for new shelters.” I have done exactly that since taking office in 2017, but to no avail.
In an effort to house the homeless that originally come from my district, I have asked the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) countless times to identify a number of those in need of housing. The number has changed several times, but it is less than 300. When I have asked for a more detailed breakdown of how many single men, women and families with children are included in that number – with the hope of determining the best possible living conditions for those populations – DHS has refused to provide that information. I suspect that is because they can’t justify placing 200 men in a large warehouse in this district.
Despite that fact, I have still worked toward a better solution for the homeless in my communities. In partnership with a local parish, I provided funding for a 15-bed program in an unused space inside a local church. The 15 homeless men who now utilize this space were taken off the streets by their own community and are receiving valuable support from the parish.
I have pointed to the success of this program and asked the mayor and DHS to create more of these shelters, but they refuse.
They clearly did not want to work with me as requested in “Turning the Tide,” but I still tried to work with them. My office came up with a perfectly viable plan to bring a brand new District 75 school to the current shelter location, and in turn we proposed several other locations for shelters of various sizes in less residential areas of the district. Even with his own agency commissioners in agreement that the plan would have worked, the mayor backed out once again. It would have been a win-win for a mayor who has faced nothing but criticism in his handling of homelessness and special education.
So as this administration thunders forward with its plan to build this shelter, you can see why my community is so frustrated. This is a neighborhood where roughly 72 percent of all housing units are one- and two-family homes, and four percent are buildings with 20 or more units. Placing 200 men in a shelter is comparable to placing an entire block of my constituents into one building. On top of that, the proposed location is next to a soon-to-be-built daycare and preschool, a shopping mall, a dance studio and numerous schools.
Combine this with the mayor’s failure to address serious mental illness with Thrive NYC, and the trust in him has completely eroded. As long as people like Randy Santos – a homeless man accused of brutally murdering four other homeless people last weekend – can roam the streets while having numerous past arrests and red flags for mental illness without ever getting the help he needed, people will fear the worst case scenarios with homelessness. Especially when that is followed by another random attack less than a week later near my district in which an emotionally disturbed homeless man seriously injured a 6-year-old boy. Even homeless individuals themselves often choose to live on the streets because they feel unsafe inside 200-bed shelters.
Many people also fear the possibility of formerly incarcerated individuals ending up in the shelters, and that fear is reasonable. In 2017, an investigation revealed that 54 percent of inmates paroled from New York State prisons to return to New York City went straight into the shelter system, a 23 percent increase since 2014.
At the end of the day, this community has provided Mayor de Blasio with alternatives that will be more accepted and more effective for the homeless in this district. We know that creating more affordable housing is the best long-term plan to solve the housing crisis. But in the short term, why should we accept less than the best possible solution for all parties involved?
Robert Holden is the Councilmember for District 30, representing the neighborhoods of Glendale, Maspeth, Middle Village, Ridgewood, Woodhaven, and Woodside.