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PeacePrints to expand housing for ex-offenders

PeacePrints Prison Ministries, a Buffalo nonprofit agency that helps rehabilitate former inmates, is expanding with a new facility for one of its programs and increased space at another residence.

Construction is nearly complete on eight additional bedrooms in Bissonette House, a Grider Street halfway house for nonviolent offenders.

In addition, the agency has finalized a deal with the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo to buy the former Holy Apostles SS. Peter & Paul Church and rectory that were closed in 2007.

The rectory at Clinton and Smith streets eventually will house as many as eight former convicts and two or three supervisory staff.

The central offices of PeacePrints Prison Ministries -- the agency that formed last year from the merger of Hope of Buffalo and Cephas Attica -- also will be located in the building.

The church will house other programs, likely in cooperation with the Franciscan Friars Holy Name Province, an order of Catholic priests and brothers who have maintained a presence in the East Side neighborhood for 150 years.

The current Cephas House on Abbott Road will be reconverted to affordable, supportive housing for men who have completed the Cephas program.

Neighborhood residents expressed reservations about the conversion plan, and the city's Zoning Board of Appeals
initially rejected the idea.

But supporters were able to convince most critics, and the zoning board, that the project would benefit the area.

PeacePrints Prison Ministries will pay $100,000 to the diocese for the church and rectory. Philanthropist Stephen Schott, former co-owner of Major League Baseball's Oakland Athletics, donated the money for the purchase after hearing about the project from a Franciscan friar who was in California on a mission assignment.

The Franciscan Friars Holy Name Province, which provides priests for St. Clare Catholic Church on Elk Street and has a friary on Seymour Street, has been involved with the 38-year-old Cephas prison ministry since 1983.

A $76,000 grant from the Federal Home Loan Bank of New York will finance improvements to make the property safer and handicapped-accessible.

Brother Michael Oberst, executive director of Cephas House, said he wasn't sure when residents would be able to move into the new facility, which will take in men who have committed violent felony crimes.

Prisoners begin in the Cephas program when they are still behind bars. To be accepted into the transitional housing program, they must commit to live there at least 90 days and participate in a structured program aimed at helping them rebuild damaged relationships with family members.

Most participants spend at least five or six months in the program before moving on to supportive housing.

"People are much more successful if they do a slower re-entry process that allows them to adjust to the responsibilities and pressures that often are new to them," Oberst said.

Some of the men who come to live in Cephas House have spent as many as 30 years in prison, he said.

The program has a low rate of recidivism compared with offenders being released directly into society with no intervention, its supporters point out.

About three-quarters of the men who complete the program go on to lead crime-free lives, Oberst said.

The program at Bissonette House is slightly different and does not admit violent offenders. Parolees there typically spend 30 to 90 days in the house before moving on.

Neither program accepts sex offenders or arsonists; both programs offer a spiritual component in the rehabilitation process.

Bissonette House was founded by Sister Karen Klimczak, whose murder in the home in 2006 by a resident nearly brought the program to a grinding halt.

Volunteers managed to keep it going, and the merger with Cephas Attica has helped stabilize both programs.

"Both of our organizations separately were overly dependent on one person or a few individuals," Oberst said. "By bringing them together, it broadens our staff . . . and makes [the programs] much less dependent on any single individual."

Capacity at Bissonette House will grow to 20 from 12 men as a result of a build-out of the former rectory's third floor.

The additional space, however, will make only a small dent in need.

More than 1,000 former inmates released from prisons each year end up back in Erie County -- and roughly a third of them have no permanent home, Oberst said.

"There's always a need for more," said the Rev. Robert L. Gebhard, chairman of PeacePrints Prison Ministries board of directors.

The Bissonette House project, which is nearly complete, was funded in part through a $400,000 state grant.

PeacePrints Prison Ministries also is exploring the possibility of offering transitional housing for women leaving prison.


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