A SISTER AND A FRIEND SISTER JEANNE FRANK'S CRUSADE FOR BUFFALO'S HOMELESS POPULATION - The Buffalo News

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A SISTER AND A FRIEND SISTER JEANNE FRANK'S CRUSADE FOR BUFFALO'S HOMELESS POPULATION

SOME NIGHT YOU may find yourself without a place to sleep.
Impossible, you say?

The number of Buffalo's working homeless is growing faster than you can say "evicted."

If you think when that day comes you would just tuck your humility into the pages of your empty bankbook, think again. If you believe you would be saved by going to a temporary shelter for the homeless in Buffalo, forget it. Your neighbors, pummeled by poverty, have found that help isn't always there. An estimated 7,500 people in the Buffalo area are homeless, many of them women with children.

"I'm telling you now -- the shelters are overloaded," warns Sister Jeanne Frank at her Crisis Services office on Main Street.

The homeless crisis is the current crusade of Sister Jeanne, Western New York's missionary nun. Her robust silhouette is as important to the spiritual profile of Buffalo as City Hall is to our political culture.

Sister Jeanne is not dripping with the candle wax of piety or white with the unctuous salve of virtue -- instead there's passion, and anger with a sweated brow and callused hands. But she gives her smile and her help as frequently as her requests for aid for her children, the needy. Armed with a mathematics degree from Boston College, she practices the new math of helping the poverty-stricken to make ends meet.

"On June 24, there was one place left for a woman in a shelter in the City of Buffalo.

"We have people sleeping on the grass on Forest Avenue.

"We have people sleeping under the bridges.

"The worst thing is that some of our men who are working for even $5 an hour cannot make it," she says.

"In Buffalo, we have people in shelters who are working. But if you work for minimum wage, you cannot afford housing. There are men in the City of Buffalo living in tents."

Not a day goes by when there isn't a phone call for help.

"I've been evicted."

"I have no food."

And it's going to get worse, says Sister Jeanne, once a math and physics teacher at private schools like Sacred Heart Academy and St. Joseph Collegiate Institute. Housing has become a luxury that a growing number of working Buffalonians can't afford.

"You tell me -- where can you get an apartment for $180 a week?" she asks.

In typical Franciscan fashion, Sister Jeanne is more interested in drawing attention to the plight of the poor than to herself.

The good sister will take to the streets Oct. 7 as part of the Housing Now march in Washington -- where the homeless sleep in shadows of the Capitol. She's helping to raise money to send buses from Buffalo to the march, expected to draw hundreds of thousands demanding an end to homelessness. (Sister Jeanne can be reached at 834-3131.)

She's also trying to find homes for people like Anne Marty, a divorced mother of eight, who is being evicted from her Blasdell home.

"Sister Jeanne is an incredibly honest, down-to-earth, concerned individual," says Mrs. Marty, who lost everything she owned in a fire.

Mrs. Marty's older children work two paper routes and several baby-sitting jobs. And the younger children can't wait to work.

"We have shoveled snow, mowed yards, put in gardens, delivered papers and tended to young children. We will continue to work," notes Mrs. Marty, 38, who also does odd jobs, rising at 5 a.m. "It will continue to be low-paying work. But I found out I'm not alone. We spend too much on bombs and not enough on people."

Despite their efforts, at the end of the month Mrs. Marty is short on food and out of milk.

"Meanwhile, the first four school-age children brought home four honor roll cards. We exist! We have a human right for decent and safe housing," she says.

At one area apartment building, rent and utilities that cost $155 a month for a small two-bedroom unit in the mid-'70s now top $400 -- utilities extra.

Sister Jeanne names a new category of the homeless.

Call them the houseless. Buffalo's working homeless are rising like rents on the properties from which they are being evicted.

"They are people who can manage, who are working. They are people who are caught by just not having enough money on which to live. People who have been dispossessed, told to move out of their apartments. The landlord wants to gentrify."

Like John S., a man who supported his wife and their newborn baby on $10,000 a year. That is, until his wife got seriously ill, and medical bills grew so large that he lost his home.

There are many like him.

Sister Jeanne talks about the underbelly of gentrification.

"As Buffalo brings in the banking community, and as Buffalo turns into a white-collar town, it is no longer that city of inexpensive housing it used to be.

"Properties are changing hands. Rents are skyrocketing in housing that most people would not like to occupy.

"In Buffalo, 52 percent of all renter households living on or below the poverty level spend 70 percent of their income for housing. If you spend 70 percent of your income for rent and utilities, what do you eat on?" she asks.

And homeowners are not necessarily better off.

"The number of people losing their houses is growing," Sister Jeanne says. Recently, tax foreclosure sale notices spread over two pages of the newspaper classified-ad section, including foreclosures in affluent areas like Clarence and Orchard Park.

Nearly half of all Buffalo homeowners at or below the poverty line paid at least 70 percent of their income for housing, according to a national study released not long ago. A retired man was forced out of his Allentown home after rising property values drove his taxes so high he no longer could pay them.

About 80,000 people in the Buffalo metropolitan area live below the poverty line. They live in houses with rats, holes in the floor, exposed wiring and peeling paint. Some have no hot water, stove or even a toilet, bathtub and shower.

"While Buffalo's economy has improved since 1984, the trends related to affordable housing must be regarded as ominous," notes Paul A. Leonard, a government policy analyst, in "A Place to Call Home."

"Declines in household incomes and increases in housing costs have been behind the growing shortage of affordable housing in Buffalo."

On Main Street, not far from downtown, an apartment building is being renovated for middle- and upper-middle-class professionals. That building, sold for almost $500,000, five years ago served as a boardinghouse where unemployed veterans stayed for $154 a month.

Some of those veterans would wait hours in the cold for a cup of coffee at the St. Vincent de Paul Dining Room, at Main and Best streets, where the hungry have a free meal. Sister Jeanne served the first lunches there in 1982.

FRANK BERNARDONE lived in a luxurious home. But he was a depressed playboy.

Dressing in the latest European styles, he had lots of money. Parties in his life were strung together like pearls.

It wasn't long before the young Italian carouser got poisoned by high living. It just was no fun anymore. He had the reverse Midas touch. All his cash turned to regrets. He felt as empty as last night's champagne glass.

When a homeless man asked him for change, Frank only gave him a rude attitude. After a moment, though, he ran after the man in rags.

Frank began helping the poor, and his rich father -- a fabric kingpin -- called him a lunatic.

Today they call Frank Bernardone a saint: Francesco di Bernardone from Assisi, St. Francis of Assisi, who traded his pearls for rosary beads. He rejected materialism and saw the face of God in the poor.

Working for Buffalo's homeless, Sister Jeanne Frank keeps Francis' devotion to the needy alive here. Inspired by his story, she joined the Franciscan order when she was just 17 -- 42 years ago.

"I always wanted to be a missionary," explains the Buffalo native, whose formal title is Sister of St. Francis of Penance and Christian Charity.

"But I don't know how much penance I do, and how charitable I am," she says with characteristic Franciscan humor. Francis was a cheerful guy.

Steel glasses match her hair and her spirit. Approach her. You'll find a courageous advocate for the disadvantaged, the lost, the faceless and disenfranchised. She's the Muhammad Ali of advocates. Champion of the voiceless and the unwanted. Be careful. If your charity quotient is low, or your ego is in the clouds, she may singe a few coiffured feathers in the fearless tradition of St. Francis.

"We've got to realize that the Donald Trumps are not the heroes of our society. People who buy housing and want to make a killing are the real criminals of this world. You don't have to make a profit on the blood of your brother."

Running a soup kitchen was her primer on housing problems.

There she met people like Laura M., a single mother of four, who was tossed out by her new landlords. Young men bought her apartment building near a gentrified area and decided there was no room for a poor mother. And they refused to return her $350 deposit.

"Greed is at the bottom of this whole thing," says Sister Jeanne.

There's a real greed sandwich between some grasping employers and landlords; the person in the middle is just a piece of meat.

"I've been to homes you wouldn't ask a dog to live in," the sister says. "I had a lady who came to me and said, 'I have no water.' I went over to see her, and she was paying rent for a place that had no water, no gas and no electric.

"It's insensitive to brag about houses selling in Buffalo for $400,000 when we see how many soup kitchens and shelters Buffalo has. Buffalo was never a $400,000-a-house city. We become insensitive to the pain and suffering around us."

Strong words from a loving heart. She closes her eyes and puts her fingers to her temple.

"I get so excited talking about this, my voice goes up.

"The fact is that food, shelter and clothing are moral rights. Anyone born into this universe is entitled to food, clothing and shelter, and has the right to work.

"This job doesn't get me down, because I'm dealing with people. I see good people and struggling people. People who really want to make it.

"Many come to a soup kitchen not because they're shiftless, not because they're lazy, not because they don't want to cook for themselves. Not because they just want to get out for the day. Many people come for the simple reason they don't have enough money for food." Like one young man who worked in an Amherst restaurant, and had to take meals at a soup kitchen so he could buy winter boots.

A Housing Now poster hangs on Sister Jeanne's office door.

By marching in Washington, Sister Jeanne -- with Adult Residential Care Advocates, a coalition in Erie County -- hopes to "alert the nation that the '90s is the decade we must strenuously work for adequate housing and wages to meet the needs of all people."

It's a pilgrimage befitting any follower of St. Francis.

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