It was a late Thursday night and the auditorium of a Brooklyn junior high was filled with angry adults at a town hall meeting. The angriest was possibly Robert Holden, a middle-aged city councilman who speaks in an archy, exasperated voice that brings to mind Alan Alda when it trembles.
Last month, plans were announced to build two new homeless shelters — one in Ridgewood and one between Glendale and Maspeth, neighboring Queens suburbs that take a strange pride in their geographic disconnection from an MTA line. “When people ask where we’re from, we don’t say Queens, and we don’t say New York. We say Maspeth,” Holden told the New York Times in 2008.
There has been much controversy since the announcement of the new shelters. Proposed shelters have been nixed three times before, due to the alleged cost to taxpayers and their property values, environmental concerns and zoning and code issues.
“What is your family worth?” Holden said at last week’s town hall. Particular ire was directed at the plans for a shelter meant for 200 single men at an unused factory warehouse on 78-16 Cooper Avenue. Holden has proposed a school at the site to replace PS 9, a special needs high school in Queens whose cause the councilman has taken on. Holden says his proposal was nixed at the last moment in an act of betrayal by functionaries of city hall.
The lines have become understandable by sheer indefatigability. A recent New York Daily News headline refers to these languid neighborhoods between Brooklyn and Queens as “shelter-hating.”
But the success of their NIMBY protests have inspired others. A collection of Bushwick residents gathered earlier this year to begin their fight against a planned shelter for 80 single adult men at 97 Wyckoff Avenue.
“I’d like to meet some people who’d like to live near a homeless shelter,” Holden told Bushwick Daily.
Before winning his seat by 137 votes — an upset win against former Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley — Holden was a graphic designer and professor at New York City College of Technology.
Holden says he is proud of his capacity to continue to generate crowds in sleepy Queens suburbs.
“This neighborhood will fight, everybody works here. We don’t take handouts. We’re a proud neighborhood. We protect it,” Holden said. “This is going to be a big fight, there’s going to be lawsuits. You saw by how many people come out, I dare say in most neighborhoods that wouldn’t happen.”
During the meeting, Holden suggests the possibility of low and moderate sex offenders taking temporary residence. The crowd loudly yells, “Hell no.” He tears through the names of city officials, namely Mayor Bill DeBlasio and, with particular venom, the Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks.
“We don’t have 200 hundred homeless men here,” Holden says.“They don’t want to give me a real number because it doesn’t benefit their strategy.”
At times, Holden yields the floor to Mike Papa, who is affiliated with the same collection of community groups where Holden crafted his political career. Earlier this year, Papa led a group of concerned residents to gather outside a synagogue in Long Island where Michael Wilner, owner of the erstwhile factory, was known to attend. They did not encounter him. “He’s willing to bring 200 criminals to our neighborhood,” Papa told the Queens Chronicle at the time.
At the town hall, Papa’s messaging was similar.
“We’re not talking about people who’ve fallen on hard times,” he said. He went on to speak about faceless hordes being bused straight into Glendale and cited DeBlasio’s long-simmering promise to close Rikers Island.
Mara Gay, a writer on the opinon desk of the New York Times, described the back and forth over the shelters back in 2016 as “vulgar, racially tinged protests.” At a meeting of Queens’ Community Board 5 last week, one attendee fumed over the Board’s choice to give the nod to the building of an animal shelter in Ridgewood while simultaneously gearing up for the latest round in its six-year fight against homeless shelters.
Father Mike Lopez, a priest who runs a local homeless services program called the Hungry Monk Rescue Truck, says a big issue is that people don’t really understand.
“I don’t particularly know where that chatter comes,” Lopez said. “I think it comes from fear, anxiety and rhetoric more than it comes from a true understanding of what’s going to happen.”
He says blaming prisons isn’t the answer.
“From my understanding, nobody is released from a prison and sent to a shelter,” Lopez says. “I can tell you first hand that a vast group of the men that I serve who are homeless are born and raised in Glendale and Ridgewood, went to the same Catholic schools and grew up going to the same parks. I think the poor look like everybody else.”
Carmen Santana, a longtime Ridgewood resident and member of the Community Board 5, agrees.
“There are a lot of people that are homeless, some who you may not even know are in your community,” She says.
While the Community Board 5 hasn’t given its official opinion yet on the latest plans, its district manager Gary Giordano says he shares the conviction that 200 single homeless people cannot exist in the neighborhoods of Ridgewood, Glendale and Maspeth.
The next public hearing on the issue, which will be run by the Board, is scheduled for Monday, October 7. Giordano earnestly says he hopes that things will be civil.
Cover image by Cailley LaPara
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