Over 200 protesters gathered in Sunset Park to rally against the growing number of converted homeless shelters in the city.
Equipped with drums, kitchen strainers, and whistles, the group—which included community groups from Sunset Park, Maspeth, and Elmhurst —traveled to three different converted shelters in Sunset Park to voice their discontent with the city's handling of its homeless population.
The rally comes on the heels of a number of similar protests in Maspeth, Queens, over the planned the conversion of a Holiday Inn Express into a shelter for homeless families with children. Although the Department of Homeless Services announced last Monday that it would no longer turn the building into a 110-bed shelter due to the backlash, local Maspeth residents decried the city's decision to instead rent out 30 rooms to employed homeless men.
Protesters at Saturday's rally repeatedly stated that they were not against the homeless, but that they were displeased with what they described as city officials allocating funding toward converting hotels into shelters—rather than working to make already existing apartments more affordable—without notifying the communities they were located in.
Specifically calling out Mayor Bill de Blasio, DHS Commissioner Steven Banks, Sunset Park Councilman Carlos Menchaca, and Harshad Patel, owner of the Maspeth Holiday Inn, protesters said city officials were "lining their pockets" by offering contracts to hotel owners for providing rooms to the homeless.
"The homeless people are not benefitting because they're not getting services that are needed. The people, the families that live near them are getting harassed by the homeless people, so there's no benefit to them," Richard Villar, attorney and co-counsel for Village of Sunset Park, told Gothamist. "The only one that's benefitting are the developers that are building the shelter, and they're getting $5,000 per person."
DHS has said that city spending on emergency shelter in hotel rooms comes to around $5,000 per month per person.
"This administration believes that every community must share responsibility in housing homeless New Yorkers," said Aja Worthy-Davis, a spokesperson for the mayor.
Ramon Acevedo, a retired NYPD sergeant and president of Village of Sunset Park, said the city should be improving existing housing stock, rather than investing in shelters.
"If they had a real interest in taking care of the homeless, then why don't they go ahead, fix up the housing?" he said. "NYCHA has plenty of apartments that need to be fixed for a lot less money than what they're spending on these shelters."
After holding demonstrations outside a shelter located between 24th St. and 4th Ave., a Sleep Inn on 22nd St. between 3rd and 4th Ave., and a Best Western Plus on 26th St. and 4th Ave., the group of protesters then chartered two buses to transport them to a converted men's shelter—which previously was a Sleep Inn—on 49th St. between 2nd and 3rd Avenues.
As residents inside the building peered out from windows, members of the rally restated that they were not against the homeless and called out to residents to come out and speak with them.
Amado Cartagena, a 47-year-old on parole who used to work in the Federal Reserve's kitchen, emerged to answer questions from the crowd and express his support.
"I feel very embarrassed," said Cartagena, who claimed he was unable to get a room through the city's LINC 5 program, which connects the working homeless with housing. "I feel like I'm abandoned here."
Cartagena later told Gothamist that he didn't believe the city was doing enough to dismantle the system of homelessness by creating more shelters.
"We have a monetary system and we go out there and make money, right?" Cartagena said. "So how are you going to place me in a shelter system and you're not going to help me get out of the system?"
"They're making us go into welfare and it's just not helping us," he added. "Nobody is really getting the help that they need."
Worthy-Davis said that city programs have enabled 45,000 residents to leave or avoid the shelter system. "Because the most effective tool against homelessness is preventing it in the first place, we've increased the number of tenants who've avoided eviction by 24 percent," she wrote in an email to Gothamist.
Worth-Davis also pointed to the Sunset Park Library project as an example of the city's work to create more affordable housing in the area.
Leaders from the various groups represented at the rally said they planned to continue publicly demonstrating against the shelters, but did not disclose when their next protest would take place.
J. Clara Chan is a journalist based in New York City. She is a student at Barnard College and the Manhattan School of Music and a news editor at the Columbia Daily Spectator