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Do not use motel as shelter: Vallone

City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria) sent a letter to the city Department of Homeless Services late last month criticizing the department’s decision to use the Westway Motel at 71-11 Astoria Blvd. in East Elmhurst as a temporary emergency shelter for single homeless men until 2011.

“I once again told them it was completely unacceptable,” Vallone said.

The Westway Motel was the center of controversy in the community in 2007, when residents learned the department had been using some of the rooms as permanent shelters for homeless people since July 2006. Residents at that time complained of illegal activities in the vicinity of the motel, such as indecent exposure, prostitution, theft, destruction of property and threats of retribution for reporting crimes.

“That was a complete disaster,” Vallone said.

After the complaints, Vallone said a deal had been brokered with the department so the motel would only be used as an overnight lodging for homeless families.

“It’s been working well. I’ve gotten no calls about problems rising out of the Westway,” Vallone said.

But he said calls began coming in two months ago complaining the motel was being used for single homeless men overnight. Vallone added that many of the complaints he had been fielding from residents, such as aggressive panhandling and theft, happened during the day when the homeless, who are sent from the hotel, do not have transportation out of the neighborhood.

“We get all sorts of complaints that are just not appropriate for a residential area like that,” he said.

Vallone contacted the department, asking about the problem. In a response letter, Homeless Commissioner Seth Diamond, said Volunteers of America were using one room as an office and others for the single-adult system. Diamond said this was done because the single-adult shelters have been experiencing increased demand and all capacity must be used before new shelters can be proposed.

“It is not the agency’s intent to maintain this facility as a single-adult site for an extended duration,” Diamond said. “In fact, DHS has additional shelter capacity in development across the city and will utilize those sites as soon as they are available to us.”

Vallone said the department has told him it plans to stop using the motel this way in January 2011. He told a United Community Civic Association meeting that motel representatives also pledged they would provide services and deal with any problems that arise.

Nevertheless, Vallone said the motel, which is in an area of single-family homes, was not an appropriate place for a shelter since it is far from businesses and places to buy food. He also said the neighborhood is under enough stress as it is next to multiple power plants, Riker’s Island and LaGuardia Airport.

“It is absolutely not appropriate for single homeless men to be wandering around one-family homes,” Vallone said.

Reach reporter Rebecca Henely by e-mail at rhenely@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4564.

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