Going hungry to stop a homeless shelter
by Jennifer Khedaroo
Aug 21, 2018 | 574 views | 0 0 comments | 38 38 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Sam Esposito’s last meal, a big Italian feast with loved ones, was on Sunday, August 5. At the time, none of them, including his partner Rudy, knew what he was planning.

Esposito is on a hunger strike in an effort to prevent the city from placing 113 homeless men in a proposed shelter at the site of the former Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church at 85-15 101st Avenue in Ozone Park.

Since the feast, Esposito has been camped out in front of the location. He plans on staying until the city revises the plan or his body gives in. So far, he’s had nothing but water and coffee, often times brought to him by neighbors.

“It’s been alright,” he said, noting that he has lost 20 pounds. “I’m getting a little lethargic now and a little dizzy, but I’m holding my own.”

His self-financed setup includes vehicles with signs opposing the shelter, a portable toilet, tent and bed, chairs for visitors, and a table with a laptop.

The hunger strike isn’t about a lack of compassion, he said, but a protest of a male-only shelter in a community of families.

With five schools in the area, there is concern over the safety of the children walking to school unsupervised or playing on the sidewalks. And store owners say they are already suffering a loss of business due to beggars in front of their shops.

Since the hunger strike began, Esposito said dozens of people have been on the sidewalk with him almost every night.

“The response from the community has been overwhelmingly positive,” Esposito said. “All of a sudden, everyone’s talking to each other. They congregate here, Muslims, Catholics, whites, blacks, Hispanics, and they all talk which is an amazing feat.

“If this hunger strike did anything, it brought the community together,” he added.

Oscar Acosta has lived in Ozone Park for 13 years after moving from Brooklyn. He fears for his 11-year-old child, who will now be living two doors down from the shelter.

He said he would also start picking up his wife from the train station when she gets home from work at 3 a.m. everyday.

“I’m intimidated,” Acosta said. “Why would they destroy our community? There’s no reason to put something like this between the schools.”

Acosta believes the homeless shelter was put in the neighborhood so homeowners would relocate, and in a few years when the local parks are renovated the neighborhood will be gentrified like Brooklyn.

“Remember when Williamsburg was the south side and the north side?” Acosta asked. “I was a super there and no one used to want to live there. Ozone Park is going to be the next big thing.”

At a recent town hall, Lantern Organization, the nonprofit developing the site, said this would be the first time the organization has worked on a project of this magnitude.

Esposito was frustrated with Lantern’s lack of a plan for extensive background checks and identifying the men at the shelter.

“How do you know if they are a sex offender and aren’t supposed to be within 500 feet of a school?” he asked. “Lantern said they are just going to run their names. Do you think a mentally ill person or a sex offender will give you the right name if you’re not checking IDs?”

He also added that Lantern’s plan to have buses for the men will end quickly because of the cost, which will force the men to wander the community when they get off the subway.

Esposito, who was a police officer for 20 years, said he has experience with crimes in homeless shelters.

“When we used to pick up the homeless off the street, they used to tell us ‘please don’t take us to the shelter, I’d rather die on the street,’” he said. “There’s so much violence and crime that occurs. This isn’t a place for people who want help, but rather for criminals to bully, steal and assault other people.”

Esposito, whose family has been in the neighborhood since the 1920s, owns two properties in the neighborhood, but insists he’s not opposing the shelter because of property values.

“I’m a diehard, an old-timer, I was born here and I’m going to die here,”he said. “I love my neighborhood, I’m not moving and I’m not selling.”

Esposito said he has spoken to sources who tell him Mayor Bill de Blasio knows about the hunger strike, but isn’t planning on meeting with him.

“The mayor is well aware of this, but my understanding is that at this moment he refuses to meet because he’s afraid this could start a trend,” Esposito said. “Other people might do this if they realize they can get somewhere.

“I understand that from a mayor’s point of view, but when you have a constituent who is willing to give his life for this, I would come just to stop it,” he added.

Instead of taking steps forward on the homeless situation, Esposito feels like the city has gone backwards with no clear solution in sight.

State Senator Joseph Addabbo and Assemblyman Mike Miller have both spent time with Esposito during his hunger strike, but Councilman Eric Ulrich has been absent. In a text message shown to the Leader/Observer, Ulrich called Esposito’s hunger strike a publicity stunt and used a slur to describe him.

“Eric Ulrich has been M.I.A.,” Esposito said. “We can’t even find him.”

For advice on the homeless shelter, Esposito went to Kathy Masi, president of the Glendale Civic Association. Glendale residents are fighting their own proposed homeless shelter.

Esposito hired the same lawyer Glendale residents used to stop the shelter the first time it was proposed a few years back. He has already paid $10,000 of his own money in legal fees, and the community has raised an additional $22,000 for the cause.

Esposito said the he and his neighbors would welcome a shelter for women and children, they are only opposed to a shelter for homeless men.

“If women and children were here, they’d have the best Christmas and that’s a promise,” he said. “That’s how our community is. We want to help, we just don’t want this here.”

Esposito hopes to hold a street fair before Labor Day, as well as host a meeting with the community following a hearing on September 14.

“There is no side motive here, I just love my community,” Esposito said. “And I don’t just talk the talk, I walk the walk.”

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