At the age of 3, my parents and I moved from Lefferts Boulevard in South Ozone Park to Ozone Park. The times of being fed by my grandmother would become weekly instead of daily. However, my parents knew it was time, especially with the new apartment having my pre-school one block away to the left and my future elementary school being one block to the right.
What do I remember about Ozone Park growing up? I remember being surrounded by many Italians, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans. I remember the convenience of being surrounded by public transportation. I remember always getting a toasted corn muffin with butter every day after school at Sapienza’s when it still existed (my father must have forgotten I was a diabetic). I remember running to the pizzeria with the green sign next to the deli to get a beef patty with cheese. I remember the park in front of my elementary school being filled with children when the days were warm. I remember the pharmacy in the corner that was owned by a very nice man named John, who my father always spoken with. I remember comfort. I remember safety. I remember a home; however, as I look back at these memories, I also remember each time a business left the neighborhood and when things began to change.
When I returned home after graduating from college, Ozone Park was unrecognizable to me: people in the area who were up to no good, large homes being torn down to make a space for multiple apartments, establishments I considered landmarks were gone, gypsies and homeless individuals were more prominent, and it was now best to get home by a certain time. We tend to think about ways to stay connected and have a future with the community we were a part of, but it does not look like this Ozone Park is the community where I want to raise my children.
Beginning last summer, there were talks about a homeless shelter for 113 mentally ill men being built where my old pre-school used to be. Talks around the neighborhood and on Facebook deemed such a thing as impossible, especially with five schools in close proximity. However, talks quickly turned from gossip to reality, and protests and community meetings were planned in opposition of the shelter. Now, don’t get me wrong: I believe that there is a need to find a solution for the homeless population that is on the rise in New York City, but it should be a smart and safe solution. Make the shelter one for women and children. The fact that the mayor believes setting up a shelter for mentally ill men in an area that is bombarded with kids throughout the day just shows that this administration only cares about pushing their own agenda. There are already 6 motels in the area that are being rented out by the city as temporary shelters. I quickly used my voice and sent out an e-mail to government officials, yet only received a response from 1:
“I am reaching out regarding my concern for the proposed Ozone Park homeless shelter that is scheduled to open late Winter (although at the rate the construction is moving, I believe it will be opening sooner). I attended P.S. 64 until my 5th grade graduation, always rushing home one block as soon as the time came. After, I attended school on the Upper East Side until my high school graduation, but always returned to Ozone Park as soon as the school day was over. I wrote my college essay on this neighborhood. I attended Colgate University for 4 years, always anticipating the return home during my long school breaks. At the age of 23, I have been back home for 2 years following my college graduation. As I come off the express bus on 101st Avenue and Woodhaven Boulevard every day after work, I go down memory lane walking back to my apartment building on 84th Street and 101st Avenue. Ozone Park is all I know.
I was made aware of the proposed homeless shelter that is being constructed on 85th Street and 101st Avenue – the sad part is, I was made aware of this due to hearsay up and down my building stairs, not because anyone has reached out or posted notices regarding this construction. I am utterly and completely disturbed about the location of this shelter. It is absolutely inappropriate. While I am aware that there is a need for more shelters and fully support it, this shelter is across the street from a tutoring center, three blocks form P.S. 64 (an elementary school) and its playground, four blocks from another elementary school, and a few more blocks from a middle school. Not only is this a shelter for homeless individuals – it is a shelter for homeless men with mental illnesses. How am I supposed to feel comfortable walking home at night after work? By the time 7 PM hits in the winter, it is pitch black, and I would have to pass by this shelter to reach my home. How am I supposed to feel for the young children that live in my building? How am I supposed to feel for the students that come in and out of the area day and night to go to school? How am I supposed to feel for my mother, who leaves for work at 5 in the morning by herself? How I am supposed to feel for my younger brother’s safety?
As a long time resident of Ozone Park, the only place I have lived in for an extended period of time, I am truly disappointed in those that are supposed to look out for the safety and well being of its residents. I would love to talk more about this concern, whether it is over the phone or in person. I hope to hear from you soon so that we may schedule this time. If not, I will be reaching out on Friday again to find a time to set something up.”
The voices of Ozone Park residents have not been heard. As recently as last month, a suit stating the shelter did not have the license required to operate one for men with mental illnesses from the state’s Office of Mental Health was thrown out. The judge dismissed the suit on technical grounds, ruling that it was premature because no contracts had yet been signed by the city. So, if a contract has not been signed, why are they still constructing? Why are homeless individuals sleeping in the park of my elementary school waiting for a space? Why did someone try to follow me into my apartment building last night? Why do I feel the need to make it home right after work every day before it becomes too dark? The Ozone Park space is quickly changing for the worst. When will we be heard?