Local parents and children from the Jericho School District hold...

Local parents and children from the Jericho School District hold a rally to speak out against the conversion of a local hotel into an 80-unit homeless shelter, a first-of-its-kind project in the region on Aug. 8, 2020 in Jericho. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Across Nassau County, hundreds of homeless families live in temporary shelters or hotel or motel rooms, looking for better housing, with services from child care to mental health care, and a path to finding a permanent residence.

A recent plan would give 80 homeless families that opportunity by turning the vacant Hampton Inn — located in a nondescript, nonresidential area on Jericho Turnpike in Jericho — into transitional housing. At least half of those families live in other motel locations in Oyster Bay Town right now, and about 20 have been in Jericho itself, only without security, services, or potential for economic mobility.

But instead of embracing the decision with the empathy essential to any definition of community, town officials and pockets of local residents have raised objections. All too typically, the town reflexively responded to the loudest voices to protect the status quo and filed a lawsuit against the property owner, 120 Westend LLC, claiming the conversion violated town zoning and permitting laws. A state judge issued a temporary restraining order. 

How did we get here? Initially, there was a mistaken communications strategy by Nassau County, which was involved as of last year, and by the property owner and Community Housing Innovations, the nonprofit that would run the facility. While county officials told the Jericho school district as early as January, they didn't tell town officials, nor did they consult with state and local elected officials representing that area. Even while managing a pandemic, there is no excuse for failing to do proper outreach.

Instead, word spread, often inaccurately through the grapevine, leaving the county struggling to control the message, and handing local residents an easy way to object based on procedure. Supervisor Joseph Saladino sent a letter to residents saying the town would "fully enforce local zoning laws which were created long ago to protect your suburban quality of life." 

But even if the county did communicate properly, the outcome might be the same; past experience has shown people still would fight to stop the housing. The town says a zoning change is required to shift the building from short-term use to long-term use. But county officials say that in siting housing for the homeless, state guidelines supersede local zoning laws. 

Meanwhile, a group called Concerned Jericho Parents created a petition seeking to stop the facility to "help preserve the safety and well being of our families and neighborhood." What some are saying in other forums is ugly, betraying upsetting views that discriminate based on race and class.

If the town is really interested in protecting its "suburban quality of life," it would embrace such transitional housing. Homeless families are our neighbors, and part of our suburban landscape. This program can help primarily mothers with children spend about nine months getting back on their feet and, ultimately, achieving their suburban dream of stability and success. This is critical as the coronavirus pandemic has left many Long Islanders economically vulnerable.

This opportunity to respond as a compassionate community shouldn't be stopped.

 — The editorial board