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Leaky roof threatens outreach as delay by BMHA worries Catholic Charities

The ceiling plaster is falling in chunks at the Catholic Charities neighborhood center and food pantry in the Commodore Perry public housing complex.

In some places, the ceiling is completely open, and rainwater seeps into light fixtures and causes the walls to crumble. A tarp taped to the ceiling with lumber reinforcements directs the rainwater into garbage totes.

The culprit is the roof on the three-story building. But the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority, which owns the site, still has not decided whether to fix the Fulton Street-St. Brigid Outreach and Pantry or relocate the center to another property.

Meanwhile, the price tag to fix the roof mounts.

The delay concerns Catholic Charities, which runs the center, as it gears up for its busiest time of the year: the holiday season.

"There's a lot of setup involved," said Eileen Nowak, director of parish outreach and advocacy for Catholic Charities. "We really need to be in a solid place by Oct. 15. That would be ideal."

The roof has been patched, and some of the offices and the food pantry are still usable. But all of the other services -- like the after-school program and the arts and crafts classes for children -- were suspended because the rooms were in such bad shape.

Catholic Charities has been running various neighborhood programs for close to 20 years at the Perry projects, eight of them at the Fulton Street location, said Executive Director Dennis Walczyk.

The food pantry has grown into one of Catholic Charities' largest, serving about 476 people a month. During Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas, the number jumps to about 675.

Michelle Jones, a mother of four who has lived in Perry Homes for the past seven years, said she could not otherwise afford many of the activities provided for free at the center.

Her daughters, 12-year-old Davona and 11-year-old Jenna, learned how to grow a garden in the nutrition classes. The reading classes helped improve Jenna's skills. And in the sewing classes for children, the girls made book bags, bean-bag frogs and tote bags, pillows and blankets they use for sleepovers.

"[The programs] kept them busy. The programs keep them involved, off the street and builds their self-esteem," Jones said.

In September last year, Catholic Charities officials approached the BMHA operations committee with a $250,000 proposal to fix the leaking roof, said BMHA Commissioner Joseph Mascia, a committee member.

The committee tabled the proposal to seek more information on the condition of the building and to look for possible sites to relocate the center.

Nine months later, Catholic Charities officials showed BMHA pictures of the interior damage and another proposal to fix the roof, this one for $275,000 because conditions had worsened, said Mascia, who argued against fixing the roof because addressing the interior damage would incur additional costs.

"I appreciate what [Catholic Charities] does for the community. But this is about business. Why spend more than a quarter million dollars on a building we're probably going to tear down? To me, that's a waste," he said.

In July, BMHA hired an engineer to assess the general condition of the building and repair costs. Relocation is still an option, but finding a suitable space is not an easy task, Nowak said, because the organization must stay within the community's 14204 ZIP code to serve the neighborhood.

So far, the locations offered by BMHA have been too small, too big or too expensive. The most recent offering had three rooms, much smaller than the current location.

"Our freezers couldn't fit in there," Nowak said.

Meanwhile, neighbors who use the services at the center are anxious to have the programs up and running again.

"This is all we have in this neighborhood," said Diane Eldridge, 55, who has lived in Perry Homes for almost four years. Before she purchased her own computer, she used one at the center to help her get through college. She graduated in May from Erie Community College with an associate's degree in liberal arts and social science.

"They're part of our community," she said. "If we didn't have this down here, I don't know what we'd do."

e-mail: dswilliams@buffnews.com

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