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Buffalo risks wallowing in its sad labels

Conservatives love to say the generosity of Americans can replace the compulsion of tax dollars to lift people out of poverty.

But you can’t prove it by the experience at HOME, the fair-housing agency that combats segregation in a region consistently ranked as among the poorest and most segregated in the country.

Unless a disappointing “crowdfunding” campaign takes off in the next 24 hours, Housing Opportunities Made Equal will have to shut its Community Housing Center this summer absent other funding to keep at least part of the $111,000 program going to help people such as Telia Robinson.

Robinson, 51, was able to move from a shelter into a Delaware Avenue apartment after the center helped her come up with the security deposit.

“You have goals. I wanted to go to school,” said the Erie Community College business administration major who’s trying to build a better life.

After being steered to HOME by Belmont Shelter Corp., she used her Section 8 housing voucher to find a quiet place in “a nice neighborhood.”

That’s the center’s goal: helping people move to “opportunity” communities; breaking up segregation and poverty in a city ignominiously known for both. In fact, the center grew out of the 1989 lawsuit challenging discrimination in Buffalo’s public housing, said Scott Gehl, HOME executive director.

“This is the proven antidote to segregation and concentrated poverty,” Gehl said, noting that two-thirds of the 4,000 families using the center since 1999 have moved to lower-poverty, less segregated neighborhoods.

That’s not always as easy as it sounds, even when steps are taken to minimize neighborhood opposition. Besides providing financial assistance, the center helps tenants look for good schools, stores, parks and other amenities they may not have thought about since such attractions weren’t available in their old neighborhoods.

Even then, it can be wrenching. Felicita Cruz, a 50-year-old school cafeteria worker, misses her church and other West Side spots after moving last fall into Riverside. But she had to move because her former landlord refused to make repairs – an all-too-common occurrence that can trap low-income residents in substandard housing absent help from something like the Community Housing Center.

But that help could disappear. Gehl said the “disappointing” online fundraising campaign – which ends Friday – is only about halfway toward its “very modest goal” of $5,000.

HOME turned to the Internet because funding from the city is half of what it used to be, funding from a consortium of suburbs is down, and the sequester means that its federal grant “will be reduced significantly,” Gehl said.

Despite foundation support, it has been raiding its bank account to keep the center afloat, after cutting the two-person staff in half. “What we really need is a dedicated source of support,” he said. “It is a question of political will.”

Where there’s no will, there’s no way. As the crowdfunding effort fizzles to a close, it underscores the fact that the charity of strangers is no substitute for enlightened government policy. If Buffalo cements its place among the ranks of the poorest and most segregated regions, it won’t be by accident; it’ll be because getting off of those lists just was not much of a priority.