Spread across a rolling landscape of single-family homes, the neighborhood of Fresh Meadows has a suburban look within the city’s borders. But in the past four years, the 11-story Wyndham Garden Hotel on 186th Street, near the Long Island Expressway, has been a source of anxiety for neighbors. The most recent example was a notice sent to neighbors by the 107th police precinct.
“We have been made aware that the Wyndham Hotel in Fresh Meadows is possibly being used to house ex-offenders from Rikers Island and is a transitional house for Creedmoor patients. Fresh Meadows residents should be aware of men possibly asking for money and men exhibiting unusual behavior,” the notice read, with instructions to contact the NCOs (NYPD neighborhood coordination officers). Never having heard of the hotel’s potential as a halfway home, there is anger towards City Hall for not informing the neighbors prior to this notice.
“This is similar to the situation in Glendale, where the city is operating a homeless shelter. There should be a forum where the community can provide input,” said Jay Goldberg. “The civic association and Community Board 8 were not consulted. Do they not have a voice in any of this?”
The Councilmembers representing Fresh Meadows, Barry Grodenchik and Rory Lancman, were informed that approximately 100 men, recently released from the Department of Corrections, are staying at this hotel while the City’s re-entry case managers are securing long-term housing for them, during which time they are receiving re-entry programming through Exodus Transitional Services, and additional on-site security is being provided by Global Security.
“Nobody wants it in their backyard, but otherwise the neighborhood is still safe,” said Walter Goldsmith, who lives a block from the hotel. “Ten years ago, we were concerned about lack of parking, but then the developer found a way and it got built.”
The placing of a hotel far from an airport and tourist destinations left neighbors wondering what kinds of clients would be staying there. “They said it would not be a homeless shelter, but I’ve seen hotels across the city being used as shelters,” said Robert Aronov. “This would ruin the neighborhood.”
But Perel Lubel Saklad, an art therapist who has an office in the neighborhood and family members living nearby, said that concerns about a halfway home should be weighed against the purpose and location. “They say that we should send them to bad neighborhoods, or put them in industrial areas. But that doesn’t give them the chance to acclimate back into society,” Saklad said. “My area of Kew Gardens Hills gets all the sex offenders moving in. I only know because I look it up. You couldn’t tell if you saw them on the street.” Her point was that even without a shelter in a hotel, former inmates can live almost anywhere and usually appear indistinguishable from any other civilian.
“I don’t mean to diminish the fears people have. They are valid, especially with the way that Rikers was letting many people out,” she said, referring to the city’s prison. Often confused with a jail, or penitentiary, the Rikers Island prison only holds individuals awaiting trial or convicted of offenses with sentences of less than a year.
The use of the Wyndham Hotel serves not only the purpose of transitioning from jail to civilian life, but also social distancing during the Coronavirus pandemic, as the city seeks to reduce the density on Rikers Island by releasing certain offenders into the population and keeping others in hotels.
With distrust in policing by leading elected officials, reduction of the police budget, and bail reform that releases suspects of certain offenses back into the public, pending trial, there is widespread fear of a shelter in Fresh Meadows housing former convicts.
Along with the feeling that they were not consulted on the matter, and that their neighborhood’s suburban appearance and low crime statistics are in danger, an online petition against the halfway house sheltering former inmates and mental services patients has received more than 3,400 signatures in less than two days.
“I live in the neighborhood and it is considered a safe and quiet residential area,” Heshy Greenberger wrote. “This will increase crime and fear in the neighborhood and decrease property values of homes we’ve worked so hard to buy and maintain. Outrageous!”