No Shelter in Maspeth, Queens

Charles Rollet
Jun 18, 2017 · 7 min read

New York City wants to open 90 new homeless shelters across the city to solve an unprecedented crisis. But if what happened when the city tried to build one in Maspeth is any guide, it’s not going to be easy.

When he started working as a cashier at McDonald’s, 49-year-old Tyrone Mapp didn’t tell his co-workers that he lived at the Holiday Inn just across the parking lot. That’s because Mapp is one of 30 homeless men sheltered at the Holiday Inn in Maspeth, Queens by the Department of Homeless Services.

“There were times I heard them talking about the shelter, so I kept it on the downlow,” the soft-spoken Mapp said. “When I first started, it’s like the place had a bad rep.”

When the city announced last August that it was going to convert the Holiday Inn into a 110-bed homeless shelter, Maspeth’s locals were outraged, claiming the shelter would bring crime and unrest to the middle-class neighborhood. They staged nightly protests for months outside the hotel, holding up signs that said “make your bed elsewhere… not in MASPETH” and “Save the kids of Maspeth!!!”

Along with a lawsuit from the hotel’s landlord, the locals’ efforts paid off. In December, the city backed down, and now only 30 men — all employed — stay at the hotel, according to DHS. I met Mapp at the exercise bars of a nearby park where he often works out. He didn’t want to be interviewed at the McDonald’s for fear of letting his co-workers know that he was homeless.

“I guess [local residents] didn’t really know what to expect,” he said.

“It only takes one person to say these guys are criminals and then everybody jumps on the bandwagon.”

A rough upbringing in Brooklyn led to Mapp serving five years in New York state prison. He planned on returning to his wife and children in Connecticut after his release, but was forced to stay in the state as part of his parole. He didn’t want to be a financial burden on his friends and family and ended up homeless in 2016.

After navigating the shelter system for a few months, Mapp now lives in a hotel room at the Holiday Inn paid for by the city which he shares with one other homeless man. Life is OK, although with a few constraints: aside from a mini-fridge and microwave, there is no kitchen, so he often eats out, and there is a strict no-guest policy, so he has to meet his family outside the hotel when they visit every weekend.

Mapp said he was grateful for the shelter but wanted to rejoin his family as soon as his parole officer would let him.

“You want to be around someone who cares, someone who loves you, who you identify with.”

Two basic statistics tell the story of why homelessness in New York City has risen to unseen heights in recent years. One is average rents, which rose 20% from 2000 to 2014 in real terms. Meanwhile, household income fell by more than 6%.

With 60,000 homeless and rising, the city — which has a legal duty to house the homeless — has been scrambling to find adequate shelter space. Under ambitious promises from Mayor Bill de Blasio to significantly reduce the number of people of the street, New York has controversially ramped up the use of hotel rooms as a ‘bridge’ between homelessness and more permanent housing.

Enter Maspeth, Queens.

Even though it’s less than a 20-minute drive from midtown Manhattan, Maspeth has a small-town feel highly distinct from the rest of New York City, perhaps due to its lack of a subway stop. Its main stretch along Grand Avenue is dotted with traditional small businesses — diners, florists, laundromats, and local favorites like Peggy Dempsey’s Bar.

The area is perhaps only notable for a large painted mural which boasts “MASPETH IS AMERICA” and for being bisected by a large cemetery, which gives brisk business for local florists. Maspeth is also 77% white and is one of the only Queens neighborhoods where Donald Trump won made a strong showing in 2016, winning over 40% of the vote.

The neighborhood’s relative isolation from the rest of New York has bred an unmistakable civic pride that has, at times, turned to resentment.

“We get dumped on so often in Maspeth, and we don’t have much,” said Bob Holden, the president of the Juniper Park Civic Association and the leader in the fight against the homeless shelter. First, he says, it was the construction of the Cross-Queens expressway that felt like an attack on a neighborhood that used to feel “rural.” Then it was the noisy airplanes on their descent to La Guardia. So when liberal Democrat Mayor Bill de Blasio decided to bring a homeless shelter to the area, locals dug in their heels.

“We’re a middle and working class neighborhood,” Holden said. “We’re gonna protect our families.”

The community quickly mobilized against the homeless shelter.But they didn’t limit themselves to protesting the Holiday Inn itself. They took buses to demonstrate outside the private home of the hotel’s owner and the homes of his family members, along with the home of Mayor de Blasio’s homelessness commissioner Steven Banks.

The protests quickly turned acrimonious. After one protestor was caught chanting “White Lives Matter,” city officials accused the mostly white protestors of racism, since many of those being sheltered were minorities. Protest leader Bob Holden fought back, claiming they merely wanted the homeless housed in their own communities.

But the protests also forged a bond between Maspeth residents.

At a tense April 5 meeting between DHS and a committee of local leaders opposed to the shelter, five female protestors — all white — came to show their support. The women said they’d become close friends after attending almost every single protest for several months. Seated around a table in the back of a cavernous auditorium at Christ the King High School in nearby Middle Village, they laughed as they reminisced over past rallies.

“I lost about 12 pounds protesting,” chuckled one of the women. (All declined to be named.) “We’re all against [the shelter],” another woman said, explaining that she feared for the safety of local schoolchildren.

The April 5 meeting was a textbook illustration of the headache the City faces in its attempt to fix homelessness in New York. Almost every single of the approximately two dozen locals present were highly skeptical of any plan to build more shelters in Queens.

Despite backing down from converting Maspeth’s Holiday Inn into a full-scale shelter, Mayor de Blasio announced this February that New York would build 90 new shelters across the five boroughs and phase out the use of hotels by 2023. He mentioned Maspeth in particular, promising he would still build a shelter there without disclosing exactly where.

The meeting was supposed to mark a shift towards greater community input and transparency from the city, which clearly doesn’t want a repeat of the Maspeth episode. But DHS Queens head Amanda Nasner, who was the only one sent to argue the city’s case, found herself deep in hostile territory and most of the meeting consisted of her fending off attack after attack.

Much of the questioning was based on the moral character of the future shelter residents.

“We don’t know who’s in there. It could be sex offenders. It could be someone walking up and stab you in the face,” said Bob Holden, who was at the meeting and was, as usual, the loudest voice in the room. Along with blasting the city’s goal of greater dialogue as “bullshit,” Holden also claimed the homeless in Manhattan were a “danger to everyone” who needed “to be taken off the street, and if need be by force.”

But Holden was far from the only one on the offensive, and the line of questioning quickly got personal. Katherine Masi of the Glendale Civic Association told Nasner that she felt “like you don’t understand the community you’re going into.” Others chimed in, with Holden heavily implying her position was a vacuous political appointment.

“I’m fully capable of managing Queens,” Nasner finally shot back.

“No you’re not. Sorry, but you’re not,” replied Dmytro Fedkowskyj, the head of the homelessness committee.

The CB5 homelessness committee meeting. Bob Holden is in the center; to his left is Katherine Masi. Amanda Nasner is on the far right; to her left is Dmytro Fedkowskyj.

The 3-hour meeting ended with both sides clearly exasperated. The result did not bode well for Mayor de Blasio’s plans to build 90 homeless shelters, each one in a community that may be just as resistant as Maspeth.

DHS spokeswoman Lauren Gray did not respond to requests for comment.

Although it may seem like it at first, not everyone in Maspeth objects to the shelter.

Crystal Wolfe, who has lived in Maspeth for over a year and a half, is the founder of Catering for the Homeless, a nonprofit which collects and donates leftover food from caterers.

I met Wolfe at a local diner in Maspeth. Unlike most of the anti-homeless shelter movement, Wolfe is young, but wouldn’t tell me her age. She said she was “outraged at the [protestors’] outrage” when the movement against the shelter began.

Wolfe credits her activism on behalf of the homeless to her deep Christian faith and two key moments in her life. During a holiday in Scotland, she said, she ran away from a homeless man she was afraid of; years later, in midtown Manhattan, she randomly embraced a homeless man on the street.

“He asked, ‘why aren’t you afraid’? And I cried.”

Wolfe is planning on bringing food donated from caterers to the Holiday Inn if the city gives her approval. Her nonprofit is struggling, she said, but she hopes it can one day go national and help people without a shelter across the US.

“I feel very different than the people of Maspeth,” she said. “Anyone could be homeless.”

All photos by Charles Rollet