Jamaica shelter meets opposition

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City Councilmember James F. Gennaro
City Councilmember James F. Gennaro

Despite broad community opposition and the outrage of a local Councilmember, the New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS) announced its approval of a 140-room homeless shelter in downtown Jamaica on the heels of its planned opening.
As of Tuesday, April 17 the El Camino, which is located in the former King Solomon Adult Residence at 160-11 89th Avenue, will begin taking residents “within days” and could ultimately serve up to 280 adults when operating at full capacity, according to DHS press secretary Tanya Valle-Batista.
“Even as we move toward reducing homelessness in New York City, we must not lose sight of our mission to provide emergency temporary shelter to New Yorkers in need,” said DHS Commissioner Robert V. Hess in a statement. “The El Camino will serve adult families with the dignity and respect they deserve as they move towards independence and permanent housing”
But City Councilmember James F. Gennaro, whose district houses the El Camino, was incensed by the approval. He said that the agency had virtually refused to communicate information on the project, demonstrating a lack of respect for the community and its elected officials.
“I am frustrated and disgusted trying to deal with DHS,” said Gennaro. “They would probably be content just bypassing the whole community.”
Valle-Batista declined to comment on Gennaro’s accusations.
The El Camino, which is housed in a building described by DHS in a press release as previously in “a state of disrepair,” has recently undergone an $18 million renovation funded by the developer.
According to Beverly Hewitt and Dolores Mathis, two long-time Jamaica residents who spearheaded opposition to the facility, downtown Jamaica is already inundated with homeless shelters. The two said the shelter will be the third on one block.
“We are overwhelmed,” said Mathis, in an interview prior to DHS granting its final approval for the facility. “We understand there’s a problem in society, but the responsibility should be placed on everyone, not just a select few.”
DHS disputed claims that downtown Jamaica bears a disproportionately high number of homeless shelters.
According to the agency, Queens ranks fourth among the five boroughs with its 17 DHS shelters, outnumbering only Staten Island, Of those 17, eight, or 47 percent, join the El Camino within the boundaries of Community District 12.
Hewitt and Mathis also voiced concern that the seven-story El Camino is located next door to the Presentation School for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students and across the street from the Dominican Commercial High School.
“These people have problems, they should not be around children,” said Mathis. “I have never heard of a high school so close to a homeless shelter.”
DHS Commissioner Hess, in his written statement, addressed this and similar concerns saying, “Too often there are misconceptions about what it means to be homeless. These are regular families, many of whom work, who are now encountering hard times and need help getting back on their feet.”
According to DHS, SCO will provide on-site social services and clients will work with permanency planning advisors, housing specialists and job training and readiness specialists among others as they move toward independent living.
DHS said that on-site security including front door access and floor monitoring will be provided 24 hours a day, seven days a week.