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Queens, N.Y., Residents Fight 3rd Homeless Shelter In Their Neighborhood

A homeless man sleeps under a blanket in a Fifth Avenue bus shelter in New York.
Mark Lennihan
A homeless man sleeps under a blanket in a Fifth Avenue bus shelter in New York.

The New York City Department of Homeless Services is moving forward with plans to convert a hotel into a shelter for homeless families in Blissville, Queens.

The new shelter at the Fairfield Inn will be the third to open in the tiny Long Island City neighborhood over the past few months. Residents are protesting the new shelter, which is one of 90 that Mayor Bill de Blasio plans to open in the city over the next few years.

Blissville residents insist their opposition to the new shelter is not because they don't want people who are homeless in their backyard. Instead, they fear that the homeless will outnumber permanent residents in an area that already lacks basic resources, says Maria Davis, vice president of the Blissville Civic Association.

"I think it's a great place if you own a home. For the homeless, the most vulnerable people, it's not a good place because there's nothing there for them," she tells Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson. "To come to Blissville in the middle of nowhere – for them to be warehoused in an environment of warehouses – it just makes it worse for them."

Blissville is small community of 450 nestled between a 365-acre cemetery, the Long Island Expressway and Newtown Creek. The neighborhood lacks critical services, including grocery stores, laundromats, urgent care centers and hospitals, Davis says. The closest subway station is almost a mile away.

Residents are also aggrieved because the neighborhood already has two new homeless shelters, one that houses about 100 single men and another for 150 adults and children. With the addition of 154 families at the Fairfield Inn, people who are homeless will soon outnumber residents.

The mayor's office says it wants every neighborhood to do its fair share in the city's effort to phase out the use of cluster housing and commercial hotel facilities to house the homeless. For years, the city has relied on run-down apartment buildings in order to meet its legal requirement to provide shelter to those who qualify.

This expensive strategy was a haphazard approach to deal with rising homelessness in New York City, which has reached the highest levels since the Great Depression. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, there were nearly 63,000 people sleeping in the city's shelter system each night in March of this year.

"Our plan distributes resources and responsibility in a fair way for the first time in our city's history," said Jaclyn Rothenberg, a spokesperson for de Blasio. "This decades-old challenge wasn't created overnight, and it won't be solved overnight, but we are headed in the right direction."

Blissville residents argue they have done their fair share. But the city Department of Homeless Services says those two shelters will be phased out when the new permanent shelter at the Fairfield Inn is up and running.

"This quote, unquote permanent shelter is just a Fairfield Inn being repurposed once again. And that's not what we should be doing with the homeless is continuing to warehouse them in commercial hotels," said City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, who represents Long Island City.

Lawmakers from all levels of government are skeptical of the city's plan to deal with the homeless crisis, which has been exacerbated by a lack of affordable housing. Nearly one-third of New Yorkers in shelters are employed but remain homeless.

"According to the Turning the Tide of Homelessness in NYC plan, all neighborhoods in the city would be equally responsible for hosting homeless shelters," a letter from local lawmakers to de Blasio states. "This is not the case in Blissville. The request for a third shelter in such close proximity to two existing ones oversteps reasonable limits."

Throughout the city, residents are mounting opposition to shelters. In rapidly gentrifying Crown Heights, Brooklyn, residents were outraged by plans to open three new shelters. In Midtown Manhattan, people are fighting plans to repurpose a shuttered West 58th Street hotel into a men's shelter.

For many residents across New York, this is personal. Davis says she is concerned the influx of people who are homeless will change her quiet, working-class neighborhood.

"One of the things that 'Turning the Tide' talks about is that in placing the homeless shelter — which really they're hotels, they're not shelters — they take a look at making sure that the neighborhood's character isn't changed," she says. "Now if you're doubling the population, what does that tell you?"

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