The crowd of 500 included grandmothers and small children, Chinese immigrants and the president of a local Republican club, all shouting that the mayor had trampled their rights.
The source of their anger? The 180 homeless families that New York City had moved into the defunct Pan American Hotel in Elmhurst, Queens. The residents felt nervous around the new arrivals, they said. There were reports of shoplifting from the Good Fortune Supermarket, public urination and panhandling — all things, they said, that had been unheard-of in their neighborhood until now.
During the protest on Tuesday night, one of the organizers spoke through a bullhorn in Mandarin, as a few people looked out the windows of the hotel.
“Speak in English!” a woman leaning out a window shouted, holding up her phone, perhaps to videotape the protest.
While local residents often object when the city opens a homeless shelter in their midst, the vitriol in Elmhurst since the city began moving families into the hotel in early June has shocked New York officials.
Because many of those opposed to using the hotel as a shelter are Chinese immigrants, the conflict has also produced discomfiting images of immigrant families and the mostly black and Latino homeless families shouting insults at one another.
A local civic group, Communities of Maspeth and Elmhurst Together, has organized a series of protests, including one in late June in which some of the protesters yelled at the shelter residents to “Get a job!”
The homeless families responded that their opponents should “go back to China.”
Both the protest organizers and city officials now seem to want to avoid a repeat of that scene. On Tuesday the city sent buses to take the shelter residents and their children to a movie, to keep them away from the protest. And the organizers tried to keep the speakers’ criticism focused on the city’s policy, rather than on the homeless themselves. There were occasional lapses, as when a man translating a speech into Mandarin inserted a sentence saying that the city should not “put this garbage in our community.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio has made it a top priority to tackle the housing crisis by building or preserving some 200,000 units of affordable housing. He has promised to stem the city’s record numbers of homeless people in shelters by starting rent subsidy programs to help working and chronically homeless families.
But with those programs not yet in place, his administration is struggling to house the tens of thousands of people, including some 11,000 families, currently seeking shelter. With the city dependent on private landlords to supply space for shelters and nonprofit service providers to run them, it does not have many options for where to locate shelters.
The Pan American Hotel, on Queens Boulevard, is one of 11 shelters opened since the beginning of the year. A blocky, seven-story structure with 216 rooms, it was purchased recently by investors who are involved in running other shelters.
The city’s Department of Homeless Services initially said the hotel was not appropriate for families because its units lacked kitchens. But in early June, facing more families seeking housing than it had units available, officials made an emergency agreement with a nonprofit shelter operator, Samaritan Village, and began moving families in.
Because the hotel lacks any kitchens, for now, meals are delivered. As of Tuesday, there were 648 people staying there, including 350 children.
Typically, the city consults extensively with local officials before opening a shelter, a process that can take up to a year. In this case, the Department of Homeless Services notified the local City Council member on the evening before the first families were moved into the hotel, and other elected officials only later.
State Assemblyman Francisco P. Moya, one of several officials who have criticized the city’s handling of the shelter, called the failure to notify him in advance “absolutely unacceptable and a complete dereliction of duty.”
Several Republican activists from elsewhere in Queens have also denounced the shelter as an example of government run amok, with one comparing the city’s shelter system to “a gulag.”
Several Chinese people at the protest on Tuesday said they believed that the city had intentionally targeted their neighborhood.
“Government always picks on an easy area,” said Edward Fung, 62, saying that historically the residents of Elmhurst had not been politically organized.
Rachel Lam, 33, said she believed the government was bullying Asians because they assumed Asians would be silent.
“But when it comes to our home, our children, our community, our safety, we will come out and protest,” Ms. Lam said.
At the protest, many of the speakers stressed practical issues, like the neighborhood’s overcrowded schools, and pointed out that there were other shelters and adult homes nearby.
But in interviews, many said the homeless families simply made them feel unsafe.
“When you see them, it looks like they’re going to mug you,” Linda Chang, 50, said in Mandarin. “It makes me feel uncomfortable.”
On an evening earlier this month, many residents who live behind the hotel expressed similar fears.
Mark Gao, 32, a wok chef at a Sichuan restaurant in Manhattan, said that his wife was nervous to walk home alone at night from her restaurant job, and that he had told his nieces not to play outside without an adult.
“Why does the government want to support this group?” Mr. Gao said in Mandarin. “Why do they want to give them free money? We have to work from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.”
He said he had taken his sons and nieces to a protest last month and that they had been scared and confused when the homeless families yelled at them.
“They asked me, ‘Why are these people so bad? Why do they want to fight with us?’ ” he said.
Kendall Walker said his 8-year-old son had been asking him the same questions.
Mr. Walker, 28, is staying in the hotel with his wife, Shakeema Morris, and their three children. The family had been living with Mr. Walker’s brother in public housing in Brooklyn when the brother was evicted for not paying rent. Since arriving at the shelter, Mr. Walker has gotten two jobs — one full time, in building maintenance, and another part time, working in a warehouse.
He said his son, Kendall Jr., had asked him why “the Chinese people” didn’t want them there.
“I told him, just because you’re a different color skin, it makes you no different from anybody else,” said Mr. Walker, who is black. “You still have a voice just like everyone else in the community.”
Mr. Walker said he sympathized with local residents’ frustration that they were not told about the shelter before it opened.
The Department of Homeless Services has said that it plans to use the hotel as a shelter as long it is needed. On Thursday, in a memo to elected officials and community leaders across the city, the department’s commissioner, Gilbert Taylor, said that in the future the department would make “every effort” to notify communities seven days before opening a shelter.
“I understand it’s much better when you have a process, but emergencies are that — emergencies,” Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, the deputy mayor for health and human services, said in an interview.
She said that she had never seen anything as extreme as the reaction in Elmhurst.
“You have good people that somehow or another are looking at other good people and are vilifying them because they feel threatened by some unknown thing that is mostly in their head,” Ms. Barrios-Paoli said. “It’s really sad.”
The protests have drawn criticism from some local residents. Zicheng Pan, 37, whose family owns the Yeung Chinese Restaurant on Grand Avenue, said that someone had come to the restaurant asking him to post fliers advertising one of the protests, but he had decided not to.
“Let’s give them a chance,” he said in Mandarin.
The New Life Fellowship Church on Queens Boulevard is holding a barbecue for the families this weekend, and its youth group is working to combat stereotypes of homeless people.
Tala Haider, 18, who runs the youth group, said he was upset by the tone of the protests.
“This is an immigrant community, which means we were given the opportunity to come here and settle down, and now when a new population is coming in, we’re like, ‘No’ — we’re against it,” said Mr. Haider, who came to America from Pakistan when he was 4.
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Yep, diversity really is our strength, we just have to “think about it.”
The Chinese will be less politically correct than already cowed white population. But they too will be beaten down it seems.