Maspeth residents often bill their neighborhood as a “small town in a big city” — a community where everyone knows each other and everyone has an opinion on neighborhood-wide issues. This past Saturday, the small town made a point to make sure every voice was heard.
Hundreds of Maspeth residents took to the street to protest the proposal to open a homeless shelter at the Holiday Inn Express at 59-40 55th Rd., near Maurice Avenue.
The decision to open the shelter there, which is due to happen at the end of October, has angered many in the community who feel it will lead to quality-of-life issues in Maspeth.
“Who is living in this shelter?” asked one marcher, who did not want to be named because she feared “retribution” from City Hall. “We are told sex offenders may live there. Will there be drug addicts and criminals? It’s just blocks from a school. It’s spitting distance from a playground!”
But some at Saturday’s march, which followed a 5-mile route through the neighborhood, took issue at the policy of opening “emergency shelters” in hotels. The protesters believed that such shelters would both negatively affect the neighborhoods they are in and be detrimental to the homeless people living there.
“It’s warehousing the homeless,” said marcher Paula Kosczynski. “There are no kitchens, which isn’t even legal. They’re a forced to live in two-star hotel rooms far from public transportation and far from jobs. It’s not fair to them nor us.”
One sign at the march described the shelter as “a jail cell with no bars.”
The march took the protesters from the Holiday Inn at Maurice Avenue and 55th Road, then south on 60th Street to Martin Luther School, east on Maspeth Avenue to 61st Street, past St. Stanislaus Church, then along Grand Avenue to 74th Street before making a U-turn and then marching north on 69th Street.
The march continued up 69th Street, then passed homes along 53rd Avenue and 65th Place before marching past O’Neill’s bar, then to the 61st Street pedestrian overpass at the LIE back to the hotel. Along the way, many of them chanted, “No homeless shelter,” “Keep our neighborhood safe” and “de Blasio must go!”
Organizers had hoped for 500 people to turn out. They got at least that, if not more. At one point, the marchers stretched along Grand Avenue from 61st Street to Hamilton Place.
Along the route, the marchers stopped in front of the offices of one of Maspeth’s elected officials notably absent from the protest: Assemblywoman Margaret Markey, who faces Democratic voters in a primary race in a few weeks. One of the organizers of the march, Republican district leader Tony Nunziato, has filed to run for the seat in November.
They chanted “Markey must go” as they passed her office. At Markey’s nearby home, several marchers had to be escorted off her property by police.
Protesters, including Markey’s primary opponent, Brian Barnwell, and Michael Conigiliaro, Republican candidate for the state Senate against state Senator Joe Addabbo Jr., also focused their ire on the community’s other elected officials, including Addabbo and Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley. Neither were at the march. The only elected official present was state Senator Tony Avella of Bayside.
Maspeth makes itself heard
At the end of the march, Bob Holden, president of the Juniper Park Civic Association, announced the creation of a new task force aimed at identifying and solving local issues.
“I am so proud of Maspeth. I am so proud of this community,” he said. “We need to stick together and make our voices heard and we did that today.”
Community Board 5 is slated to hold a public hearing this Wednesday, Aug. 31 at the Knockdown Center, 52-19 Flushing Ave., in Maspeth, during which the Department of Homeless Services will attend and provide more information on the proposed Maspeth shelter.
“Let’s continue to be heard. Today, tomorrow, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evening,” Holden said, alluding to Wednesday’s meeting and ongoing protests outside the Holiday Inn.
Maspeth is just the latest New York City neighborhood to find itself in the middle of a battle against an emergency homeless shelter. The de Blasio administration has been opening emergency shelters in shuttered hotels all across the city to cope with the city’s growing homeless problem.
The issue first came to light in 2014, when the former Pan American Hotel on Queens Boulevard in Elmhurst was converted into an “emergency shelter.” Subsequently, former hotels in East Elmhurst, Springfield Gardens, Woodside and Bushwick were converted into “emergency shelters.”
The de Blasio administration says the shelters are needed because the city is required by law to shelter anyone who asked for it, and the number of those asking for it has risen dramatically in recent years due to lack of affordable housing, domestic violence issues and a heroin and opioid epidemic in places like Staten Island, northeast Queens and Long Island.