By David Brand
Two days after four homeless men were brutally beaten and killed on the streets of Manhattan’s Chinatown, hundreds of central Queens residents packed a high school auditorium in Middle Village to condemn a planned homeless men’s shelter — and to demonize the New Yorkers who would live there.
There are legitimate critiques of large-scale homeless shelters and the multi-million dollar city contracts awarded to shelter providers as the city contends with a record-high homeless population and a widening income inequality chasm.
But complex issues and possible solutions went unexamined Monday night at Christ the King High School — in part because speakers who attempted to address them were immediately booed and cursed at. The public hearing was the latest phase in the saga over a proposed 200-bed men’s shelter that the city plans to build inside a vacant warehouse at 78-16 Cooper Ave. in Glendale.
At the beginning of the event, hecklers interrupted a moment of silence for the four men killed while sleeping on the sidewalk early Saturday morning.
From there, the dialogue devolved into discriminatory denunciations of people, particularly men, who experience homelessness. Roughly 60,000 people, including 21,694 children, slept in a New York City municipal shelter on Oct. 6, according to the Department of Homeless Services’ most recent daily census.
”These homeless men are ‘tranks, lobos and zipheads’ … They’re drug addicts and sexual offenders,” said one woman who quoted a line from “Back to the Future.” “Put them in a separate area away from society. They should be locked away forever and out of sight permanently.”
Another woman went even further.
“I hope someone is going to burn the place down,” she shouted into the microphone.
Mike Papa of the anti-shelter group Glendale Middle Village Coalition criticized the nonprofit organization Westhab, which will receive a lucrative city contract to operate the shelter on Cooper Avenue. He then turned his attention to shelter residents, implying that they are criminals.
“Homelessness is their business and thanks to Mayor de Blasio, the Department of Correction will supply all the customers that companies like Westhab want,” said Papa, garnering applause from the crowd.
Moments later, the same attendees screamed at a Crystal Wolfe, a local resident who runs a nonprofit providing food for the homeless, when she said that “homelessness is a complex issue that is the result of problems that have been ignored for decades.”
Tousif Ahsan, a member of the Ridgewood Tenants Union, also attempted to speak “in support of our homeless neighbors.”
“Get the [expletive] outta here,” one man screamed. Most of Ahsan’s speech was inaudible amid the jeers.
District 30 Councilmember Robert Holden, whose 2017 victory over incumbent Elizabeth Crowley was driven by anti-shelter sentiment, did not condemn his constituents’ commentary. Instead, he stoked their anger.
Holden said the city had “promised a school” for the Cooper Avenue site but gave the funding to “the poverty pimps” — his term for shelter providers who contract with the city.
Holden said he favors shelters “for 15 to 20 people; not 200” and he ended his allotted two-minute speaking time with a rallying cry.
“This shelter will not be at 78-16. We’ll make sure of it,” he said.
After the hearing, Mayor Bill de Blasio responded to the frenzied, discriminatory rhetoric.
“This kind of vitriol and demonization of our neighbors is dangerous and we won't stand for it,” de Blasio tweeted in response to an Eagle reporter’s thread about the hearing. “There are people in need of safe and humane shelter in our city. We’re going to take care of them whether hateful voices like it or not.”
Nevertheless, de Blasio was the target of intense criticism from shelter opponents as well as speakers who said they support the homeless. Ridgewood Tenants Union organizer Raquel Namuche tried to point out that common ground.
“You should all be working together to fight City Hall to build housing for your communities,” Namuche said. “We know the solution is not shelters.”
Namuche was booed, screamed at and told to leave.