Oct. 23, 2018 By Laura Hanrahan
The fate of two area buildings recently proposed to be turned into homeless shelters have yet to be settled, with plans for P.S. 9 still undecided while a Cooper Avenue building is apparently inching closer to becoming a brand new public school.
Council Member Bob Holden attempted to clear the air on the matter at last Thursday’s Juniper Park Civic Association (JPCA) meeting, where he said he is now in favor of turning P.S. 9, which serves students with disabilities at 58-74 57th St., into a transitional facility rather than a homeless shelter.
Meanwhile, he pointed to his continued efforts to have 78-16 Cooper Ave. become a state-of-the-art school instead of a men’s shelter as put forth by the city this summer.
Holden’s stance on both buildings comes from wanting what he calls a faith-based approach to sheltering the homeless, advocating for housing the homeless in smaller numbers at empty church rectories and convents throughout the neighborhood rather than in a large, single shelter in the area.
A large site like P.S.9, in turn, could become a place that formerly homeless people getting back up on their feet can access additional help and resources.
As for 78-16 Cooper Ave., Holden says the deal to build a new school there is 90 percent done, and that they are “just waiting on one signature.” He suggested that the building could become the future home of P.S. 9 students.
He hopes that building a new school while keeping the students in the current P.S. 9 building will buy him a few years to explore alternative solutions to placing a homeless shelter.
There is no proposed timeline or budget for the new school. It is also unclear whether his plan for P.S. 9 will be carried out.
Plans to place a shelter within the confines of Community District 5 have been ongoing for years. According to Holden, the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) says there are 287 homeless people in the area, but the district currently only has the capacity to house 104 people, all in a contracted hotel—a system the city is trying to move away from.
Holden says DHS has been unable to break down the number of homeless in the area by demographics.
In July of this year, it was reported that a social services provider was in talks to convert the former factory at 78-16 Cooper Ave. into a homeless shelter that could house up to 200 men.
The idea sparked immediate backlash from the community.
According to Holden, he was previously told the Cooper Avenue location was toxic, but after touring the run-down P.S. 9 building in April and then learning of the viability of the Cooper Avenue location, he began pursuing the property as a possible location for a new school.
At the JPCA meeting, Holden presented photos and videos from his tour of P.S. 9 to illustrate the deteriorated, out-of-date facilities and surrounding industrial properties.
With the possibility of the school soon being vacated, P.S. 9 was added to the city’s list as a potential location for a shelter. Earlier this month, rumors circulated that the school had been chosen as the location, starting with statement issued by Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan opposing the shelter site.
According to Holden, they were still in early talks with DHS, and nothing had actually been finalized. But the community, again, loudly voiced their opposition to the plan.
“The last thing I wanted was for the principal and the students and the parents to find out it’s going to be made into a homeless shelter, so I told the Commissioner, ‘How does that happen? We’re in the middle of this, nothing’s finalized and you announce it?’” Holden said.
“I should have called them and now they feel like I’m stabbing them in the back,” adding “they’re angry because they were blindsided.”
State Senator Joseph Addabbo (D), who also attended the JPCA meeting, spoke out against a shelter at P.S. 9.
“Warehousing large numbers of homeless people does not work,” Addabbo said. “It does not work for the community, it does not work for the homeless people, it does not work for the city—2 billion dollars later and this administration has shown it to be true.”
Addabbo recommended that the city use the 1,100 vacant parcels it already owns to create smaller temporary housing for the homeless. He brought up temporary housing built after World War II that helped veterans got back on their feet.
Assembly District 30 candidate Eric Butkiwicz (R) remained skeptical that any form of housing for the homeless in the area was even necessary.
“In over 100 years we haven’t needed a shelter in our neighborhood and all of a sudden the Mayor comes in and tells us that the problem is so bad that we need a homeless shelter,” Butkiewicz said. “We looked around and they’re not here. We looked in Maspeth and Glendale.”
The hall at Our Lady of Hope, where Thursday’s meeting was held, was filled wall to wall with residents eager to voice their concerns on homelessness in general.
Sam Esposito, president on the Ozone Park Residents Block Association, took issue with the lack of documentation used to track residents of the shelters.
“How do you know that person wasn’t a sexual offender if you didn’t fingerprint them, and we don’t even know if their name was real?” Esposito said, adding “It’s like we’re under attack. I feel like we’re under siege.”
Holden is hopeful about implementing a faith-based housing program that will allow the homeless to be housed in smaller, more manageable numbers spread throughout the community.
He says he has already received interest from individual parishes in the community.
“St. Mathias has a great soup kitchen where they feed the homeless every single day,” Holden said. “One of the volunteers, they pointed to the rectory and said look at this we’ve got 20 rooms in there, it’s a shame these guys are living on the street.”
Holden has contacted lawyers for the diocese. He plans to meet with the bishop this week.