NIAGARA FALLS – A city block club believes a Ferry Avenue shelter for the homeless should not be operating at its current location.
Niagara Gospel Rescue Mission, which serves as an emergency men’s shelter, offers a daily meal program and has a residential program for men, is located at 1023 Ferry.
Memorial Park Block Club officials say they have concerns about how the people served by the shelter are cared for, and have seen problems like vagrancy, increased garbage and an increase in crime they say the shelter is causing in the neighborhood.
“There’s a concern in the neighborhood about how these people are being taken care of,” said Ruth Cooper, president of the block club.
A vulnerable population, sometimes including men with substance abuse or mental health issues, is served by the facility, one which is not subjected to regulation by Niagara County or the state. And the block club feels the city’s Code Enforcement Department is failing to do its job.
“We want Code Enforcement to come enforce the law,” said John Cooper, a past president of the club.
The city updated its zoning laws in 2009 and enacted a “group home” law last year. The group home law requires any group living situation, including homeless shelters, to be granted a special permit by the city.
It’s unclear whether anything specifically written into the law allowed any pre-existing uses that did not conform to the law to be permitted.
Dennis F. Virtuoso, director of the city’s Code Enforcement Department, acknowledges that using that property as a homeless shelter would not be permitted now under the city’s zoning codes if it were set up today.
But Virtuoso said the property’s been used as a boardinghouse for more than 30 years and “it’s grandfathered in.”
“There’s nothing we can do about it,” Virtuoso said.
The property was an adult home until February 2004, said Louise B. Colvin, a city resident who ran the facility known as Eagle’s Nest Adult Home.
After it closed, Colvin said her daughter lived there for a while in order to keep an eye on the property.
Colvin sold the property to Niagara Gospel Rescue Mission in 2010.
Virtuoso, who said block club members just won’t accept the answer he’s given them, said the property was never vacant, as far as he knew.
The city’s own online property records system lists the property as a single-family home, not a boardinghouse or a transient facility.
D. Shaun Smith, the shelter’s executive director, said the facility was told by the city in a letter that the property could be used as a shelter and the organization would not have purchased the property otherwise.
Smith said the shelter is funded by area churches and individual donations, and thus not subject to any regulation.
The county Department of Social Services has no oversight or authority of the premises, Commissioner Anthony J. Restaino said.
Meanwhile, the state Office of Temporary and Disability Services oversees only facilities with 20 or more beds, agency spokesman Marc Kaplan said.
The 4,000-square-foot shelter has 16 beds – which are really mats, Smith said – for men who need emergency overnight shelter.
Smith said he believes the concerns of the block club are “NIMBY” concerns, or “not in my backyard.”
Block club leaders say they have been trying to get the city to deal with their concerns about the property for several years, and they are planning to make a complaint to the state Department of State over what they say is the city’s inaction.