A proposal by the de Blasio administration to convert a Holiday Inn Express in Maspeth to a homeless shelter has caused outrage among many residents of the tight-knit Queens, NY community, many of whom are Irish and profoundly worried about the impact the plan would have on their way of life.
At the start of August the administration revealed plans to house homeless families at the Holiday Inn Express on 55th Road in Maspeth, a highly visible building right off the Long Island Expressway within walking distance of residences, a park and local businesses. The facility could accommodate up to 220 homeless people in its 110 rooms, with the stipulation that no children under the age of 18 would be housed there.
The city’s Department of Homeless Services had targeted an October 1 opening for the shelter, but an agreement has not yet been finalized according to Maggie Hayes, a spokesperson for New York City Council Member Elizabeth Crowley who represents the area and is a staunch opponent of the plan.
Maspeth residents and business owners, fearful that a shelter will lead to rising crime and loitering, immediately vented their fury at the Holiday Inn conversion, with thousands attending demonstrations and marching in the streets. A meeting hosted by the local Community Board 5 is scheduled for Wednesday, August 31 at 7 p.m. at the Knockdown Center at 52-19 Flushing Avenue and is expected to draw an overflow crowd. Officials from the Department of Homeless Services are scheduled to speak and answer questions about the proposal.
Irish and Polish immigrant families have called Maspeth home for years and remain a strong presence in the community, which is only five miles from Manhattan but not easily accessible by subway. Grand Avenue, the main street in the town, is dotted with many Irish-owned businesses and bars/restaurants.
Michelle Boyce, a native of Newry, Co. Down and owner of the popular Irish café and food store Shelly’s, right off Grand at 66th Street, told our sister publication the Irish Voice that she’s “extremely worried and concerned” by how her year-old business will be impacted if the shelter becomes a reality.
“It is very frustrating,” said Boyce, a resident of Maspeth for the past six years who worked in the hospitality industry before deciding to branch out on her own, offering homemade hot Irish meals, groceries and more to her varied clientele.
Maspeth is “full of Irish,” she says, “and has a real mom and pop flavor. It’s a lovely community. But we are already experiencing problems with criminal behavior. I’ve seen it myself.”
Shelly’s is a short walk from the Holiday Inn Express and Boyce, like many other locals, has noticed unsavory behavior from “unknowns” in the nearby park.
“There are already homeless people around here and it can get scary,” said Boyce, who travels to her business by car because of her growing fear of walking early in the morning or late at night.
Opening Shelly’s was a “dream come true” for Boyce, who works long hours (the café is open from 5:30 a.m. until 10:30 p.m.), employs 15 locals and serves a full Irish menu of favorites such as stew, curries, sherry trifle and a traditional Irish breakfast. The cafe also sells Irish groceries.
If she could talk directly to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Boyce would tell him that he should “take into consideration the effect the shelter will have on hard-working local businesses. We all have to pay the rent. We all have to make a living. Why would he want to make that harder for us?”
Boyce stressed that she doesn’t want to be “organizing boycotts or pickets. That’s not who I am and that’s not what Maspeth is.
“But I have a business to run and I have to worry about paying my rent,” she added.
“This is just very unsettling for us. It’s a family neighborhood. People want to feel comfortable walking their kids to school, and walking around their neighborhood, and now all that is changing. It’s not right.”
Peggy Dempsey’s, an Irish pub and restaurant at 64-14 Flushing Avenue, about a mile from the Holiday Inn Express, opened in March of this year, but proprietor Brian Dempsey would have thought twice about the move had he known a nearby homeless shelter was a possibility.
“One of the things we calculated when we decided to open was the proximity to nearby hotels, not shelters,” Dempsey told the Irish Voice.
“We’re just a new business in the neighborhood,” added Dempsey, a native of Rockaway Beach who also owns Brian Dempsey’s on Bell Boulevard in Bayside, Queens.
“I don’t see that having the shelter in a nice neighborhood will add anything to Maspeth at all. I think it will bring the neighborhood down.”
Hayes, the spokesperson for Council Member Crowley, told the Irish Voice that the Holiday Inn Express conversion from hotel to shelter is “absolutely not” a done deal, and that “nothing has been signed.”
“As far as we’re concerned, we’re pursuing every legal and legislative avenue we can take to prevent it from happening,” Hayes said.
On August 9, Crowley wrote a letter to de Blasio stating her opposition to the proposed shelter.
“It is a shortsighted, fiscally irresponsible and completely inadequate plan for the homeless and for the Maspeth community. Hotel rooms are by no means suitable for anyone who has fallen on hard times. It puts occupants in an unstable environment, and is not the right answer when addressing our city’s homelessness crisis,” Crowley wrote.
“There are already three shelters within blocks of the proposed Holiday Inn site, greatly impacting the Maspeth community. The administration’s efforts should be devoted to working with the developers, community boards, and elected officials’ offices to build affordable housing in Maspeth and the surrounding area.”
Crowley also made her opposition known to the InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) which owns the Holiday Inn brand. She wrote a letter on August 25 to the company’s CEO Elie Maalouf urging him to put the brakes on the conversion.