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NEIGHBORS CHALLENGE MINISTRY FOR HOMELESS, DRUG ABUSERS

Prayer & Praise Fellowship, a ministry for 40 homeless men on Linwood Avenue, insists it is not a drug-treatment center. Yet it admits busing in crack-cocaine addicts from New York City and says 90 percent of its clients have had drug problems.

Prayer & Praise tells donors it is entirely funded through private contributions. Yet it collects nearly $140,000 a year in welfare and food stamp payments for its clients from the Erie County Department of Social Services.

Prayer & Praise, already pushed out of Lancaster and a church on Elk Street in the past three years, is under fire from city officials who want the organization and its clients out of a former retirement home at 221 Linwood near Bryant Street.

But this time, Prayer & Praise is making a stand.

"They've asked us to leave, but we're not going to leave," said the Rev. Richard Armenia, Prayer & Praise's director. "We're a church. Our understanding is there is not a zone in which a church cannot function. We have a right to be here."

The city disagrees and last week won a State Supreme Court ruling that says Prayer & Praise must obtain the proper permits.

Buffalo accuses the organization of running an unlicensed rooming house and an unregistered group home. Prayer & Praise is appealing the court decision.

"A church indeed is exempt from zoning," agreed a lawyer who is one of the 400 Linwood-area residents who signed a petition against Prayer & Praise after it moved to Linwood last year at this time.

"But you can't throw a cross up on the front of a building and do what you want to do," the lawyer said.

Added another neighbor who lives across the street: "If a church wanted to smelt steel, would it be allowed smelt steel in a residential neighborhood just because it's a church?"

Like his fellow Linwood neighbors, he asked not to be identified after a brick was thrown through the front window of another leader in the movement to oust Prayer & Praise.

The church has denied any involvement. Mr. Armenia said the church has complained to police about a rock going through one of its windows also.

"They're proud of the fact they pick these roomers up on the streets of New York City," said another of the neighbors. "Why in God's name are they bringing people here from New York City and raping our neighborhood?"

Like their Allentown neighbors to the south, Linwood residents say that too many social service agencies are destroying the residential character of their neighborhood.

They cite an increase in street muggings and burglaries and say many have had their property assessments lowered by the city in the last year after they cited the effect Prayer & Praise had on the value of their homes.

Mr. Armenia, who gave a reporter a tour Friday of the spotless facility, finds such claims ridiculous.

He accuses neighbors of lying about claims that his men have caused an increase in crime or that they bother nearby residents. He said the men are not allowed outside without an escort and said police have not received a single complaint about his home or its residents.

"These people are so angry with us," Mr. Armenia said of the Linwood residents, "if they could get one thing on us, they'd blow it way out of proportion."

What is Prayer & Praise Fellowship, and why do so many people hate it?

Mr. Armenia, an insurance agent, said he formed the church in 1989 after leaving the Catholic Church and becoming a non-denominational pastor.

He began the homeless ministry in 1992 and affiliated with the Upper Room Ministry of the Times Square Church in New York City, and started bringing in clients here. A year later, he recruited a blue-ribbon board of directors to help him run the organization.

The board includes the Rev. David Rich, the son of Rich Products Chairman Robert E. Rich Sr., whose company sponsored the group's fund-raising dinner last fall in Orchard Park.

The Rev. Rich is a family pastor for Prayer & Praise and visits family members of its clients here and in New York City. He is currently on vacation in Florida and could not be reached to comment.

Is Prayer & Praise a drug-treatment facility?

It sounds so from the organization's claims in its newsletters and testimonials at last fall's dinner.

"Fully addicted to crack cocaine, Darryl's life was in ruins," Prayer & Praise's newsletter said of a young man who arrived here on a Greyhound bus after he walked into a storefront church in New York City's Times Square.

The newsletter said of another member of the group: "So the streets of New York have lost another drug dealer, and the local hookers have lost their favorite landlord."

Yet Mr. Armenia denies that Prayer & Praise treats these drug problems, despite acknowledging that 90 percent of his clients have had drug troubles.

"We've never denied that people in here were addicted to drugs," he said. "My purpose is not in getting a person off of drugs. My purpose is getting a man committed to Jesus Christ. When that happens, the drug-taking will stop."

Patricia Bax, clinical supervisor for outpatient treatment at Buffalo's Bry-Lin Hospital, called it a novel treatment plan, especially for getting somebody off of crack cocaine with its high rate of relapse.

"I've never heard of that approach," she said. "It almost sounds like a miraculous healing."

Prayer & Praise told potential donors last fall at the Rich dinner in Orchard Park that it is funded entirely from private donations.

But Prayer & Praise helped enroll 27 men in Erie County's Home Relief program as of Feb. 27, according to sources, each of them drawing $305 a month in welfare payments.

The county and state equally split those welfare payments, which add up to $99,000 a year.

Another 28 Prayer & Praise members, sources said, are each receiving $115 a month in food stamps, a federally funded program administered by Erie County.

In all, welfare and food stamp payments to Prayer & Praise add up to nearly $138,000 a year. Sources said the welfare checks are made out to both the ministry and the individual recipients and are signed over to Prayer & Praise.

Yet in its promotional brochures, Prayer & Praise never mentions that its recruits receive welfare.

The organization says this of its funding: "Prayer & Praise Fellowship Community is a (IRS) not-for-profit organization and is funded totally through private, tax-deductible donations."

Asked about that statement, Mr. Armenia said the brochure printed for its fund-raising dinner was in error.

"That's not true," he said of the brochure. "When we first printed the brochures, that was true. But then it got picked up on the next brochures.

"We changed it on our new brochures," he said as he looked for a new brochure but failed to find one. "You're not going to believe me unless I show you the new ones.

"I don't know, at this point, if we have corrected that," he said after he failed to find one of the brochures. "I guess we haven't changed it."

Mr. Armenia said the brochures should say that Prayer & Praise receives about one-third of its funds in welfare and food stamp payments.

Controversy has followed Prayer & Praise since the beginning.

In Lancaster, Prayer & Praise bought a run-down former auctioneers warehouse on Ransom Road and moved in until the town cited it with building code violations.

Thomas Fowler, Lancaster's police chief, said he recalls the 30 men living there seemed to be in poor health without any kind of medical supervision.

"We could have had a mass tragedy there," Fowler said, "because we felt the building didn't conform to codes and didn't lend itself to the housing of so many sick people."

Prayer & Praise next moved to the Shrine of St. Jude Catholic Church on Elk Street, where it was welcomed to a former school by the Rev. Edwin J. Kaukus.

But neighbors of the church complained about so many men living in the school, where they said mattresses for the men completely covered the floor.

"I served them notice," said Matthew Baudo, the city's director of housing and property inspections. "I told them in no uncertain terms that I would be there with the sheriff and with a court order if they didn't leave."

The group then moved to Linwood last year after buying the mortgage for the former retirement home through a U.S. Bankruptcy Court proceeding.

Prayer & Praise applied for the proper permits but then withdrew the applications and cited its status as a church after various city agencies turned them down amid the neighborhood protest.

On Friday, a half-dozen members of the home were unloading a bakery truck, others were involved in a group discussion in a conference room, and another group was singing religious songs in a makeshift recording studio.

"They have regimen from 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. every day," Mr. Armenia said of the group's day, which includes prayers at least three times a day.

"This is a very rigid, disciplined ministry," he said. "It's as close to a monastery as you can get without being a Catholic. No one goes out that door without an escort. No one is allowed outside the building after 10:30 p.m."

Why not just drop the court fight and apply for the city permits?

"If there was a chance in the world we could get a permit, we would have done it," he said. "I'm not a rabble-rouser, I've never been involved in controversy in my life. I'm a pastor of a church. I'm doing work the Lord has called me to do."

"God bless you," said one of Prayer & Praise's neighbors, "do what you have to do, but not in my neighborhood."

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