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Niagara Falls homeless shelter gets $1.7M grant

NIAGARA FALLS -- Niagara Gospel Rescue Mission’s motto is: “Help, Hope, Healing” and it just received a sizable financial boost to help it further realize its potential.

The mission recently announced that it will receive a $1,763,222 capital improvement grant from the Federal Home Loan Bank of New York, with the assistance of M&T Bank, to renovate the former YMCA facility at 1317 Portage Road.

Currently, 35 to more than 50 men are housed and fed at the shelter on a typical night.

The grant, which is part of the Federal Home Loan Bank’s affordable housing initiative program, will allow the Mission to make vast improvements to the former YMCA building, which dates to the 1920s, with a four-story addition built in 1957.

One of the rooms for homeless men at the Niagara Gospel Rescue Mission shelter. The Mission recently received a $1.7 million grant to fix up the homeless shelter it runs in the former YMCA building in Niagara Falls. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

The mission purchased the building for a nominal fee just over one year ago.

“We are extremely grateful to the Federal Home Loan Bank and M&T Bank and the people of the Niagara region for helping us procure this grant,” said Tom McLaughlin, the Mission’s interim executive director. “This will allow us to reach a greater number of people and really make a difference in the lives of the most needy people in the Niagara region.”

The Mission offers emergency shelter for men who have nowhere to go and single-room occupancy for men who need longer-term housing, said McLaughlin.

“We have 56 single occupancy rooms -- so we don’t need to add any more -- but we need to rehab these rooms,” he said, as some are not suitable for occupancy. “They were in great disrepair when we took them over and we want to make them really nice.

“We’re also going to put in brand-new bathrooms,” he added.

McLaughlin added that making the facility handicapped-accessible is also in the plans, as is a kitchen.

“We really need a major commercial kitchen,” he explained. “We’ve been raising money for that already. We’ve been busing people to our building on Ferry Avenue for meals because we have no kitchen here.”

Established in 2006, the mission started an RV soup kitchen in 2007; moved into a unused church at Linwood  Avenue and 22nd Street in 2008; and purchased a home at 1023 Ferry Ave. in 2010, where it opened its first homeless men’s emergency shelter with 16 beds. The mission no longer houses men there and will sell this site as a condition of its grant, but still uses the kitchen to serve a hot evening meal for its Portage Road patrons as well as anyone else in need.

The Mission was not able to offer single-occupancy rooms for low-income, qualifying men needing longer-term residences until this past year, when it took over the former YMCA.

Mark Cerbone, the Mission’s associate director,  said that the mission plans to convert one of two racquetball courts on the first floor into a new emergency shelter with multiple beds.

He added that plans also call for the conversion of the spacious former exercise room on the second floor to a “discipleship center,” to provide separate living quarters and a “positive learning environment” for 20 or so of the residents who are ready to join a more rigorous leadership program. “It’s a key component of the mission’s services and designed to deepen the faith and build the character of those willing to grow in Christian faith,” he said.

Cerbone noted that about half of the men living in the shelter are currently served on an emergency shelter basis and the other half have longer-term residencies.

“Some of the men in residential housing are able to pay a modest rent, and others get help from DSS (Department of Social Services), but they all help out around the building,” he said. “It’s almost completely maintained by our residents. Many of them are excellent, skilled workers, just down on their luck right now.

“We want to help people in need, but we also want to empower men and give them the tools to break out of the cycle of poverty,” Cerbone said. “We believe in a hand-up, not a hand-out, in helping men learn how to read, dress better, gain employment, gain self-respect and respect for others -- practice the skills that will help them get out of poverty. This is what Jesus wants us to do.”

The Mission provides programs to help men break the cycle of alcohol and drug dependency, offers medical screening and financial literacy programs and job skills counseling, as well.

“We’re not here to enable, we’re here to empower,” Cerbone said.

Architectural plans are being finalized and McLaughlin said the project will soon go out to bid. He said it will be up to the contractors, but he would like to see the work completed “as soon as possible.”

Cerbone noted that the grant is solely for capital improvements.

And, he added, that the building’s offerings are “at capacity now, until we can increase the numbers of our staff and our board.”

He said future plans might include: offering professional Christian counseling; providing employment training; and offering housing for women and children at a companion site.

“We need people to keep on giving, praying, trusting and volunteering for our full potential to be realized,” Cerbone said.

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