Queens Residents Overwhelmed by Homeless Shelter Development

By Matthew Sedacca

Photo credit: Matthew Sedacca

Tightly squeezing her worn hands around a plastic Domino’s Pizza delivery voucher, Shannon Hernandez scowled at her new neighbors’ one-story homes along Ditmars Boulevard. Like several of the residents that just moved into the recently developed homeless shelter in Queens, the mother of two had been greeted upon her arrival with news of outrage and verbal pitchforks.

“Obviously the people around here aren’t happy,” she said, referring to the chilly reception she and several residents of her homeless shelter received. “They’re settled; they’re worried about their mortgages and property values.”

In the past year, New York has seen a drastic increase in its homeless population. With rising rents and landlords selling off their rent stabilized buildings, waves of low-income tenants are being thrown into the streets with few places to go. The New York City Department of Homeless Services has declared the city in a state of emergency because of its expanding homeless population. Citing a 20 percent rise in applications for shelter residency, the department is racing to establish shelters across the city to accommodate the ever-growing number of newly homeless.

In August, the Department of Homeless Services converted the former Clarion Hotel in East Elmhurst into The Landing, a homeless shelter designed to accommodate small families from across the city. On paper, it has been a widely heralded concept. But in practice the shelter has been saddled with a double whammy. Because the new shelter is not limited to homeless people from the community, some area homeless say they are being displaced by the newcomers in a cracked mirror version of what is happening in the community at large as the more affluent push out the much less so. And for the community’s homeowners and others who have lived in the neighborhood for years, the new shelters rouse familiar worries about slipping property values and diminishing quality of life.

“The property value of my house has dropped because of the shelter,” Ruth Turville, a resident of East Elmhurst for 43 years, said noting the Westway Shelter that opened last year. “Now we have one seven blocks away.”

Jesus and Julissa Ferreira recently took a Sunday stroll along bustling Junction Boulevard not far from The Landing, where they live with their young son. Although the young couple said they’re happy to have a home, albeit temporary, they wish they could be closer to their native Brooklyn. They also said they know all too well about homeless shelter displacement.

“Whoever’s looking at your history of where you lived at, they send you the complete opposite of where you’re originally from,” Jesus Ferreira said, voicing his frustration with what he said is the system’s inadequate placement process. Julissa Ferreira, tattooed and well-dressed like her husband, nodded in agreement. “So we’re from Brooklyn,” he said, “and they sent us to Manhattan; all the way up to the Bronx.”

And while they said they are now closer to Brooklyn at The Landing than stays in other shelters, the commute there for work and their son’s medical checkups is, nonetheless, inconvenient for the struggling young family.

While administrators over New York’s homeless shelters expressed sympathy for families like the Ferreiras, they say fitting together the jigsaw puzzle of shelters available, location and place of origin of the homeless is greatly complicated by the sheer size of growing and chronic needs.

With 57,000 homeless residents already sleeping in shelters, Nicole Cueto, spokeswoman for the Department of Homeless Services, responded in an emailed statement, writing that the increases “have maxed our system.”

“We are operating at 0.05% capacity in our system for families,” she said.

By the end of September, a month after The Landing’s opening in August, 131 out of its 169 units were occupied with families.

At a town hall meeting in East Elmhurst’s St. Mark’s AME Church in late September, several of the neighborhood’s original residents loudly voiced their concerns about The Landing and the department’s process for establishing shelters.

The Landing was the second shelter to open in the neighborhood in the past two years. There is also neighborhood speculation of more shelters to come. But general fears that the presence of the shelters will drive down area property values may be the product of an urban myth.

“As a real estate professional, I can say having someone in a DHS contract in a hotel is not at all related to the appraisal of your single family home,” said Julie Behrens, the founder of Project Urbanista, an urban planning practice specializing in community-engaged planning. “It’s not taken into consideration for the appraisal.”

Nevertheless, East Elmhurst Senator José Peralta explained that the addition of homeless family shelters in a neighborhood could yet indirectly affect real estate value. Often times, he noted, the increase of children in the area can lead to overcrowding schools. There is also an accompanying need for higher police security. Without adequate financial support to shelters by the city, Peralta said surrounding property values could ultimately be threatened.

“If after a year or two of the homeless shelter existing and we don’t have the resources — there’s no increase in resources — and things begin to become abandoned, or appear to be abandoned, then who’s going to want to buy property in the area?” Peralta asked.

Annika White is worried.

A longtime homeowner living near one of the new homeless shelters and disapproving of its addition to the neighborhood, White recently signed her name to a petition covered with signatures like hers vocalizing the community’s outrage. She said she is worried that more shelters are slated for her neighborhood. She explained that heightening anger over the shelters is “not about mistreatment or looking down on anyone.”

“Not one of these groups did research on infrastructure on where they’re placing the shelter,” White said. “We have two or three in our area and are getting on fine, but we can’t take anymore.”