Breaking Ground, a non-profit organization serving the homeless, has proposed to use the now-vacant building at 100-32 Atlantic Ave. as a 50-bed transitional "Safe Haven" and "Drop-In Center." Various people in Ozone Park and Richmond Hill are fiercely against the idea.
Opponents have raised one legally valid objection – the sex offender issue. Breaking Ground could fix this by either (1) agreeing to screen for convicted sex offender or (2) finding another location that's not within 1000 feet of a school or playground.
Many opponents would still be against any kind of service to homeless people anywhere within Community District 9 (Richmond Hill, Kew Gardens, Woodhaven, and Ozone Park) even if the sex offender issue were properly dealt with.
We disagree. We believe that every NYC community district, including ours, should shoulder its share of the responsibility for getting its own homeless people off the streets and giving them both temporary shelter and, as soon as possible, permanent housing. Each district's community board should have a say as to exactly where this happens within the district, and on what measures (e/g. extra streetlights). are needed to counteract any negative impact on the chosen neighborhood But NO district should be entitled to just kick out all its own homeless people and expect them all to be taken care of somewhere else. If every district were to take care of primarily its own homeless people, there would be less crime, etc. in NYC overall.
There have been plenty of panhandlers and other visibly homeless people in Richmond Hill for at least the past three decades, especially on and around Jamaica Avenue. There is also a larger and more hidden population of homeless people in Forest Park. Yet "there are currently zero Department of Homeless Services facilities in Community District 9," according to Lauren Gray, a spokesperson for DHS (quoted in the Queens Tribune online edition, August 25, 2016).
Furthermore, Breaking Ground's proposed Safe Haven and Drop-In Center seems much better than most homeless shelters – better, not just for the homeless, but for the neighborhood too, as explained below.
Breaking Ground's proposed facility would differ from many traditional homeless shelters as follows:
- Security guards would patrol the neighborhood to ensure that there would NOT be crowds of homeless people hanging around outside. Residents of the proposed Safe Haven would not be kicked out during the day, as they are in many shelters, but would be encouraged to stay inside when not going anywhere in particular (Queens Tribune online edition, August 25, 2016).
- The Safe Haven would have only 50 beds – too small to bring in huge numbers of homeless people from outside our part of Queens.
- Breaking Ground's street outreach team would go out looking for homeless people in the neighborhood, to get them off the streets.
- Those people who are found to be drunk or on drugs would be taken immediately to a separate treatment facility, outside our neighborhood (according to what we heard at the Community Board 9 meeting on September 13, 2016). Thus, people would stay at the Safe Haven only if they are not drunk or on drugs.
- Various services would be provided to help Safe Haven residents find jobs and permanent housing ASAP.
The proposed Safe Haven would be accompained by a "Drop-In Center" which would provide services to at most 75 people – not just homeless people, but also people at risk of becoming homeless, to help them avoid losing their housing.
The sex offender issue
As of August, the proposal did not include screening for sex offender status. But the proposed Atlantic Avenue location is less than 1000 feet from both a playground and the High School for Construction Trades, whereas New York State law requires that Level 3 registered sex offenders not be within 1000 feet of the property line of either a school or a children's playground. Regardless of whether this law is a good law (and many experts believe this law doesn't actually protect children but only causes more problems), as long as such a law is on the books, our community is entitled to demand that both Breaking Ground and the Department of Homeless Services must obey the law.
At the Community Board 9 meeting on October 11, 2016, it was mentioned that Breaking Ground agreed to screen for sex offender status. However, it was also mentioned that Breaking Ground provides services to people who don't have ID, including helping them get ID – and, if someone doesn't have ID, it's impossible to screen that person for sex offender status.
So that the proposed facility can still serve people who don't have ID, we think it would be much better if it could be located someplace that is NOT within 1000 feet of a school, daycare center, or playground. We (CCN) have volunteered to help the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) find such places within or near Community District 9.
We think most other objections to the presence of the proposed facility in CD 9 are either unfounded or issues that can be resolved with appropriate policies, as discussed below.
A response to other objections we've heard
Why do we need homeless shelters at all? Why not just refurbish all the many vacant properties that the NYC government owns and give everyone permanent housing?
Indeed, the city's housing policy should focus primarily on permanent housing, not shelters. And restoring abandoned apartment buildings is an excellent place to start.
Yet there will always be a need for transitional shelters too. People who have lost their home need a place to stay while their applications for permanent housing are being processed.
But why here? Why not ship all of NYC's homeless people off to the Bronx, or upstate?
Imagine the trauma of losing your home. Why should the NYC government inflict even more trauma on you by forcing you to leave your neighborhood also – to leave everything familiar, to leave everyone you know who could help you in any way – and force you to stay someplace where you have to commute two extra hours each way to and from your job? (Yes, many homeless people do have jobs, just not high-paying enough to afford rent.)
Some homeless people may benefit by being moved far from their previous home, e.g. many drug addicts (to cut them off from suppliers) and people fleeing abusive families. But, for most other homeless people, forcing them out of their neighborhoods is inexcusably cruel in our opinion, and makes it much harder for them to put their lives back together. Even longtime street people are likely to cling to neighborhoods familiar to them – the areas where they know how to survive – and thus can be gotten off the streets more easily if there is a shelter nearby where they can go.
But ... they're going to steal the donuts off my plate at Dunkin Donuts!
On the contrary, they'll have far less reason to steal your donuts if they are getting meals at the Breaking Ground facility than if they aren't being served regular meals anywhere. Moreover, if they're not supporting a drug habit (and, remember, Breaking Ground has agreed to send the active drug abusers elsewhere), they'll have relatively little motive to steal anything else either.
But ... they're ... dangerous! They're violent!
Most of the visibly homeless people around here – the people whom Breaking Ground's street outreach team would be picking up in their vans – are elderly or otherwise physically feeble. Most are not physically capable of being muggers, rapists, or burglars.
Our neighborhood will become a magnet for homeless people from all over the city!
No it won't. Again, the proposed Safe Haven will have just 50 beds. Our district will still be sheltering less than our share of the city's homeless population. And, just as our local homeless people do not want to go to the Bronx (even though there are many more services for the homeless there), so too most of the Bronx's homeless people do not want to come here either. DHS should also be asked to agree, formally, that the proposed facility will prioritize the homeless people already in our district, rather than attempt to serve even all of Queens equally.
My property value will go down!
Not necessarily. For example, Hell's Kitchen, once a notorious slum, has become quite trendy and upscale despite the presence of Covenant House, with hundreds of beds sheltering the most truly dangerous homeless demographic – teenage boys – and hardly anyone is complaining about a recent plan to make it bigger. In Brooklyn, Breaking Ground claims to have an excellent relationship with Community Board 14 regarding one of its bigger locations (according to the Queens Chronicle online edition, August 25, 2016). That claim should be verified, of course.
We should carefully consider ways the city can counteract any negative impact on property values. For example, some Safe Haven residents could be hired for brief stints at removing local graffiti, cutting tall grass in nearby vacant lots, etc. Also, we think the NYC government should give preference for some kinds of physical improvements, such as additional streetlights, to neighborhoods that contain homeless shelters.
If a shelter is set up at Atlantic Avenue and 102nd Street, all the stores in the nearby shopping center will close down!
Why? Shoplifting? For reasons explained above and on the previous page, Breaking Ground's proposal would not inevitably increase theft in the neighborhood but might even reduce theft It should also be possible to counteract the projected fears of customers. Remember, Breaking Ground has promised to have their security people prevent homeless people from hanging around the immediate neighborhood. We could ask that their security staff also help patrol the shopping center. To help shoppers feel even safer, we should also ask the city to install a few extra streetlights in the area, plus maybe a surveillance camera or two. Similar measures should be taken to help retail businesses near any other site being considered for the proposed facility.