One Saturday last May, an elderly man stood on the sidewalk outside a Maspeth Federal Savings Bank branch on a quiet block in Fresh Meadows, Queens, when a stranger walked up to him and punched him square in the face.
This kind of unfortunate incident happens occasionally on the streets of New York City, but in this case an important detail had broader implications: the man arrested and charged with assault gave the police his address as 61-27 186th St., a hotel around the corner from the bank.
That hotel houses inmates released from Rikers Island and state prisons, as it has since the start of the pandemic as part of the city’s effort to curb the spread of the virus. The arrestee was one of those former inmates.
And he was not the only one. Last year, 42 individuals arrested for a wide variety of crimes gave 61-27 186th St. as their address, according to a search of NYPD records performed by Deputy Inspector Kevin Chan, commanding officer of the 107th Precinct where the hotel is located.
Alleged crimes committed by individuals listed at the 186th St. address included robbery, burglary, grand larceny, petit larceny and criminal possession of a controlled substance, according to the NYPD.
“Forty-two is a large number of people who used that address,” Chan told THE CITY. “It’s one location. They’re former inmates. They have been arrested before. I don’t want to assume that everyone who’s been arrested before gets arrested again, but it does happen that in some cases they continue committing the same crimes.”
Residents report an uptick in crime in the area, and a CVS behind the hotel has been hit repeatedly by shoplifters in the last year. Prior to that, the store experienced only occasional theft, workers say.
The pandemic-related effort to place released inmates in hotels is now the subject of multiple investigations, after THE CITY revealed Exodus Transitional Community, the non-profit hired by the city to run the program, relied on an unlicensed firm to handle security at the hotels.
During that time, a female inmate staying at the Queens hotel alleged she was sexually assaulted by an Exodus staffer. Under its original contract with the mayor’s office, Exodus was not required to report incidents to city officials, who were unaware of the alleged assault until THE CITY disclosed it.
THE CITY also found that Exodus’ initial COVID-19 emergency contract was awarded without competitive bidding and rose from $835,000 to $56 million in just 16 months. In January Adams awarded Exodus a second $40 million contract to continue the ex-inmate hotel placement program through June.
Taxpayers are footing the bill for all of this, and the total cost is not yet known. The Exodus contracts cover only security costs, meals and supportive services such as job referral and counseling. The hotel bill is separate.
In an emailed response to questions from THE CITY, mayoral spokesperson Jonah Allon did not say if the mayor’s office was aware of the number of arrestees listing the Exodus-run hotel as their address, nor what action, if any, was taken regarding those hotel residents.
“In the event there is an incident outside the hotel facility involving law enforcement, when our partners become aware each situation is handled on a case-by-case basis. Exodus complies with all legal requests from law enforcement and informs the City of critical incidents involving site specific safety, and community safety as a whole,” Allon wrote.
“The hotel program run by Exodus has helped thousands of people released from incarceration transition back into our communities successfully,” he added. “The city and our providers put safety at the top of the list for both the participants in the programs as well as the communities in which we operate.”
When reached by THE CITY, Exodus did not immediately provide comment.
How much effect the ex-inmates staying in these hotels have had on surrounding neighborhoods is difficult to gauge. Chan found that last year 10 of the 42 arrestees who gave the hotel as their address were arrested within the confines of the 107th Precinct.
But that’s just arrests. In the first four months of 2022, the number of major crimes reported in the 107th has jumped by 95% compared to the same period last year, NYPD crime statistics show. That’s far more than the 43% increase citywide.
This is particularly true with robbery and theft. The number of robberies in the 107th jumped 168%, far above the 47% citywide rise, while grand larceny there spiked by 114%, double the 54% rise citywide. Car theft in the 107th has gone through the roof, skyrocketing by 235% from Jan. 1 through April 24th, compared to the 69% spike citywide, the data show.
For the most part, residents of the neighborhood interviewed by THE CITY did not attribute this overall crime spike solely to released inmates staying in the hotel, and they acknowledged that this rise in crime — both citywide and in their home precinct — has coincided with the pandemic.
Without exception, however, they described frequent encounters with men staying at the hotel accosting them for money and contributing to what many described as a climate of fear. The fact that 42 individuals listed that hotel as their address when they were arrested on criminal charges only reinforced those fears.
“I think it’s disturbing but it’s something that people in the neighborhood have been saying for some time,” said Kevin Forrestal, president of Queens Civic Congress. “There was an immediate uptick in shoplifting, particularly at that CVS. There’s an overwhelming presumption that it’s associated.”
Elaine Young, president of the West Cunningham Park Civic Association, says the community participates in regular meetings with Exodus for updates on the hotel, but that the meetings shed little light on what’s going on there. Exodus, she noted, did not tell them about the 42 hotel residents getting arrested last year.
“We’re incredibly unhappy about this being there and we feel that from the very start it was done in the dark of night we weren’t told and we’re still not told,” she said. “
Sammy Lachman, 58, who’s lived in the neighborhood for 24 years, described two encounters over the last two months of being accosted by strangers in spots adjacent to the hotel.
In the second incident, which occurred last week, Lachman says he was heading into a bagel shop around the corner from the hotel when two men confronted him asking for money. When he asked if they were staying at the hotel, they said yes.
“They’re out there every morning asking for money,” he said. “Before, you could walk any hour of the night. We never had people asking for money. Never. Never. I don’t feel safe at all out here. I have to lock my door. When I come home I have to watch who’s around. I don’t live too far from that place. It’s not good. It’s not good at all.”
At the other end of a parking lot behind the hotel sits a CVS pharmacy that staff there suspect has been targeted by the ex-inmates at the hotel with a number of increasingly brazen shoplifting sprees.
In March, THE CITY watched as customers tried to open a fridge in the store that held only bottled water but found it was locked. A security guard had to unlock it — not because Polar Springs had become a hot item for shoplifters, but because the cooler had provided a means for the latest caper to hit the store.
As the security guard described it to THE CITY, a thief and an accomplice had entered the drugstore. The thief opened the cooler door, pushed the rack of bottles back into the refrigerated storage room behind the cooler and stepped inside, while his accomplice kept watch by the door. He soon emerged with cases of beer, deposited them into a roller suitcase, and he and his accomplice sauntered out the front door.
As one of the store managers put it, “The guys are going in there and stealing the beer. They don’t steal the water.”
That was Aisle 1. On Aisle 5, store employees say thieves have repeatedly come into the CVS over the last year, popped open locked cabinets and pilfered coveted boxes of antihistamine, an ingredient sometimes used to cut methamphetamine.
Before the pandemic, they said, this CVS experienced an occasional shoplifter here and there. But starting early last year and continuing into this year, the store experienced a veritable crime wave that reached a crescendo in the last several months.
A store manager couldn’t say for sure what’s happening, but she did note that on a couple of occasions, employees have watched as shoplifters left the store with their loot, walked across the parking lot and entered a familiar address: the hotel.
In a statement, the NYPD said there have been no arrests related to individuals popping open locked cabinets at the CVS, but that one individual was arrested for shoplifting there in March 2021. The defendant told the cops he was living at the hotel.
Deputy Inspector Chan noted that when police are looking for a suspect they believe lives at the hotel, Exodus has been, for the most part, cooperative. After the recent robbery of a nearby pizzeria, for instance, they eventually provided cops with security video taken at the hotel to help them identify and arrest the suspect, who was a hotel resident.
“Are they transparent? I wish they were more transparent,” Chan said. “But I’ve spoken to a couple managers there…they’re more than willing to tell me if a guy is living there or if a guy no longer lives there.”
All told, the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, which oversees Exodus’ handling of the program, says about 1,700 released inmates have been placed in six hotels since the start of the pandemic, including more than 220 who stayed for more than a year. As of two weeks ago, 800 were still there, MOCJ officials said.
In response to THE CITY’s reporting, a number of Queens elected officials called on Mayor Eric Adams to terminate the contract with Exodus. Adams refused, but did order a “comprehensive review” of all similar no-bid emergency contracts awarded as part of former Mayor de Blasio’s response to the pandemic.
Last Thursday, Adams spokesperson Allon did not say what will happen with the ex-inmate hotel program going forward. He called it “an overall success” that helped take pressure off city homeless shelters, and added, “The city is in the process of developing a long-term transitional housing plan to continue to help those returning from incarceration. The details of that plan will be made public when they are ready.”