Fragile Calm as Woodside Hotel Becomes Shelter

Woodside Shelter
A temporary shelter at the Quality Inn in Woodside has pitted residents against the Department of Homeless Services. (The Ink/Gabriela Bhaskar)

Karina Karakash was used to seeing buses drop off tourists at the Quality Inn near her auto repair shop in Woodside. Then one night in June, a school bus pulled up. The passengers looked different from the Inn’s usual Asian and European guests. They were mostly black and Latina women with children. When more arrived a few nights later, a friend tipped Karakash off. “You realize there’s a homeless shelter there, right?” he told her.

Karakash was not the only local surprised by the news. City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer and Queens Community Board 2 only learned about the temporary shelter for women and children on 53-05 Queens Boulevard when a furious constituent called Van Bramer’s office in July.

The Quality Inn is part of a well-documented trend of housing 6,000 of the city’s homeless in hotels. Many of these temporary shelters have sprung up in working-class neighborhoods in Queens. But Woodside residents and leaders say the quick fix lacks community input and threatens to lower their quality of life without addressing the root cause of homelessness.

“I am extremely upset that the administration converted this hotel into a temporary shelter without notifying anyone in the community,” said Van Bramer in an official email statement. “In situations like this, the best policy is transparency—not trying to sneak changes past local communities.”

The Department of Homeless Services has a legal obligation to house the city’s homeless, but it must follow the city’s “fair share” policy and gather community input when seeking sites for permanent shelters. However, hotels serving as emergency shelters are not considered long-term facilities. Informing local officials and residents is “a courtesy, not a requirement,” according to a comptroller’s report on the issue.

“This has just been thrust upon us,” said Paul Salow, who lives with his wife and infant across from the Quality Inn. At a Community Board 2 meeting in Sunnyside in September, Salow called himself “liberal-minded” but recounted with exasperation the times since early August he has confronted shelter residents and security guards about loitering, marijuana use and noise.

On Sept. 1, Salow walked out his front door and found graffiti scrawled over the wall of his front stoop. Payback for complaining, he said he thought.

On Sept. 11, after attending the community board meeting, he finally called the cops with a noise complaint. The next day, someone threw a brick into his neighbor’s yard. At his insistence, 108th precinct officers arrived the next week to investigate.

“There are obviously a few bad apples who are ruining it for the families residing in the hotel who are upstanding citizens and are trying to do the right thing,” Salow wrote in a letter to Van Bramer.

But the “right thing” is elusive for a homeless family given the ever-rising cost of living in New York City. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, the number of homeless people in the city, which reached 60,000 in July, has jumped 87 percent in the last decade. Evictions and lack of access to affordable housing are some of the most common catalysts for homelessness.

Joe Conley, a member of Queens Community Board 2, called the use of hotels “a short-term solution. People will be shuffled from one place to the other. . . . The affordable housing that the mayor is talking about – those are people with income,” he said in an interview. The people that are homeless, without income, that’s what’s not being addressed.”

Conley said the only winners in this arrangement are the hotel owners. Hotels rent out rooms to the city per diem, usually without a contract or a discount. Staff at the Quality Inn said the daily charges for shelter rooms on the bottom two floors run between $120-200 per room. The rest are rented out to tourists as usual, none of whom were aware of the hotel’s controversy when interviewed.

Lauren Gray, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeless Services, said the city has no plans to convert the Quality Inn into a permanent homeless shelter. Another department employee told Denise Keehan-Smith, chairwoman of Community Board 2, that the typical time limit for this category of shelter is nine months. Kaushik Patel, the owner of the Quality Inn, declined to comment.

“I wish we could have the same protest as they had in Maspeth,” said Salow, referring to the recent angry protests and lawsuit against a hotel-to-shelter conversion there. But Van Bramer has said repeatedly that he will not protest shelters for women and children despite his frustration.

Keehan-Smith said the issues at the Quality Inn – which has 36 families, 40 percent with children under four years old – are different from those at the Holiday Inn Express in Maspeth, where until recently 200 families were living with adult children. Still, Community Board 2 is in talks with the Department of Homeless Services, and Board member Conley said that they haven’t ruled out legal action.

In the weeks since Salow called the police, the Quality Inn has been mostly quiet. Teens leave before seven in the morning for their long commute to school. Two case managers are on site weekdays, and a nonprofit arrives daily with food deliveries. Karakash and Salow suspect that the nighttime disturbances died down in response to their complaints.

One homeless resident, who did not want to go on the record because she fears retribution from the shelter system, said she thinks that the recent uproar about hotel-to-shelter conversions misses the point. As she nervously eyed the cameras above the hotel’s entrance, she explained that she ended up at the Quality Inn because her former landlord suddenly decided to sell the apartment she had been renting.

If residents of Woodside are going to get angry about something, she said, it should be about the crisis in affordable housing.

On Sept. 29, the Department of Homeless Services reiterated the city’s plan to “phase out” the use of hotels as shelters and focus on longterm housing solutions, but it did not provide a timeline.

“I will believe it when I see it,” said Salow in an email.