Hundreds attended the rally at 85-15 101st Avenue, where the city plans to house 113 mentally ill men. It will be operated by Lantern Community Services at the former Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church.
The rally was organized by the Ozone Park Residents Block Association and its president Sam Esposito.
“We’re trying to change the narrative of the homeless shelter,” said association president Sam Esposito, noting that the neighborhood would welcome a shelter for women and children.
In August, Esposito went on a 15-day hunger strike in an effort to bring awareness to the situation. The hunger strike ended after he lost 25 pounds and suffered a blood pressure spike.
“We’re not asking to shut the shelter down, because obviously we have to have a shelter in our community like everybody does,” he said. “We’re willing to share the burden, but this is not the neighborhood for 113 mentally ill men to come and do what they please.”
Esposito said association members have a meeting with an elected official on September 25 to see what further actions can be taken.
Sister Francis Marie, the principal of Divine Mercy Catholic Academy, which is a few blocks from the proposed shelter, said she was concerned for the thousands of students in the area.
“We’re not against shelters, we want everyone to have a warm place to sleep at night,” she said. “But we have to protect our children in the area.
“We really have to be concerned about the children walking to and from school, and even during the day when they’re in school,” she said.
Her suggestion is to look into empty motels near JFK Airport that could house the men without being too close to residences or schools.
State Senator Joe Addabbo said he spoke to Mayor Bill de Blasio in August, and again two weeks ago, regarding the shelter. The mayor told him “nothing was set in stone,” but Addabbo urged the community to continue to pressure the city.
“Now that schools are open, you see what the shelter would mean for this community,” he said. “We see children on the streets, and to think about 113 mentally ill men mixed with these children and parents with strollers is a reality we don’t want to face.”
Addabbo prefers to see either a reduction in the amount of men living in the shelter or a shelter that caters only to women, children, seniors or veterans.
“Mentally ill men need help, but not here,” Addabbo said. “They need the services, but there are other sites throughout the city that can truly help them.”
While he commended Lantern for their other programs, Addabbo said the organization is unequipped to help the mentally ill men.
He had a copy of Lantern’s proposed daily itinerary, given to himself and Assemblyman Mike Miller by the organization, that showed scheduled morning meditation at 8 a.m. and a community meeting at 4 p.m. Between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., Lantern had no activities planned for the men.
“There’s no plan to get the men back on their feet, so Lantern is not the proper entity to help the mentally ill men here,” Addabbo said.
Principal Jeanne Shannon St. Elizabeth Catholic Academy, which is also a few blocks from the shelter, has raised concerns about the shelter at numerous community meetings.
With a curfew enforced at the shelter, Shannon wondered where the men who missed curfew would end up sleeping at night.
“Where are these men sleeping? In the yards or on the porches of local neighbors?” Shannon asked. “On our school steps? On our church’s steps? On our temple’s steps?
“I have children playing in our schoolyard all day from morning until about 2:45 p.m., how can I keep these people away from my schoolyard?” she continued.
The Ozone Park Residents Block Association is continuing to raise funds to pay for a lawsuit against the city. The next meeting will be held at Nativity Church, 101-41 91st Street, on September 25, when organizers will hope to have an update on the lawsuit.
“We’re Ozone Park residents and we all need to be involved,” Esposito said. “We can’t sit on the sidelines and say somebody else is going to do it.
“We might not win on our terms today, but we’re going to win this battle now or three years from now when a new administration comes in,” he added. “We want people to really stay focused. This is about staying together as a community and fighting for what we believe in.”