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Mayor takes wait-and-see stance on proposed Buffalo City Mission expansion

An ambitious plan to add apartments, offices and emergency shelter space at the Buffalo City Mission has picked up support from state and local officials, and even a downtown developer.

But City Mission officials are still waiting on Mayor Byron W. Brown, and how he responds could prove pivotal to their chances of pulling off the $31.5 million plan.

While City Mission administrators view support from the others as an important part of their appeals for state money, they have asked more of City Hall.

The City Mission wants $770,000 from the city’s federal Community Development Block Grant allocation and $1.25 million from the city’s HOME Program funds. Mission officials believe financial support from the city would help their chances of getting the state money as they compete with other organizations across the state for the aid.

Brown, however, told The Buffalo News he wants to wait to see how the City Mission makes out with the state before he commits the money.

“We haven’t made an endorsement decision,” Brown said. “We do support the mission and its programs. We need to provide these services to our people who are poor and in need, and we certainly are supportive of an expansion to provide those services.”

But the City Mission isn’t the only organization seeking housing funds locally, the mayor said.

“More and more requests are coming into the city to provide these same types of services, for veterans, for other specific groups,” Brown said.

Brown said committing city funding would be premature until the state’s contribution is in place for the City Mission expansion.

Paying for expansion

The expansion plan relies heavily on tax credits and state financing through three different programs, along with the smaller amount of local funding. All the budgeted money would go toward construction; the mission’s services and programs are paid for almost entirely with private donations.

Stuart Harper, the mission’s executive director and chief executive officer, said he hopes to hear by late spring or early summer whether the applications for state funding have been approved.

Harper points to broad support for the project, and he remains optimistic the state will provide funds for an expansion.

The City Mission’s applications include letters of support from the County Legislature, state lawmakers from the local delegation in Albany, downtown developer Rocco Termini, major regional foundations, more than a dozen social service agencies, Erie Community College and the University at Buffalo, and Howard Zemsky, head of Empire State Development Corp.

If the money comes through, ground would be broken in the fall for a three-story building above the City Mission’s existing parking lot. The current facility was built in 1984. Along with Cornerstone Manor, its partner project for women, it is fully paid for.

Settled location

The project makes use of the City Mission’s land on the edge of downtown. By staying at its location, rather than moving elsewhere, the project remains close to its core clientele and avoids the prospect of not-in-my-backyard complaints from neighbors at a new site.

“We looked at 39 other sites around the city, and we decided the best site was the one we’d been sitting on for 30 years,” Harper said.

The City Mission provides a safe place for homeless men to eat and sleep, and offers educational programs, job training and medical treatment. It now has 153 beds, plus room for 90 cots for emergency shelter. Barracks-like sleeping quarters offer little privacy.

The expansion would add 68 housing units, with studio apartments to allow the men in the recovery program to develop autonomy. Space for emergency beds would double to 184. The need for that proved great this winter with night after night of “Code Blue” alerts and temperatures in single digits and negative numbers.

Common Council President Darius Pridgen, whose Ellicott District includes the mission, held public meetings to update residents about the project. He offered unequivocal support.

“I believe in the mission of the City Mission,” Pridgen said. “When the city is doing well, we should not leave behind those who need us most. This will not be a flophouse. This plan will pull people up and make them part of the job market. Ultimately, it will be a win-win for Buffalo.”

Getting on their feet

By providing more long-term housing, the City Mission would be able to give men more time to get on their feet. They would not have to leave as soon as they get a job, Harper said.

“We’ve always been successful with people who were motivated (to change),” Harper said. “The problem has been with people who had no hope, who had chronic problems. If they need medication, it can take a long time to get stabilized and move forward. Everybody’s had employment who is here. For some, they can’t sustain it without help. We want to provide an environment where they can do that.”

For the men who get that chance, it can make all the difference.

Navy veteran David Rea had never expected to be homeless. He has an associate degree in computer work and now is also studying graphic arts and computer applications. He found himself staying at the City Mission this winter.

“This is my first time being homeless,” Rea said. “When I went to school for IT, we were learning Windows XP. That’s no good anymore. I appreciate the opportunities here. It’s the best place to come if you need help.”

He’s taking advantage of programs available specifically for veterans and looks forward to finding work.

“It’s only a temporary solution to a permanent problem unless you get what you need,” Rea said. “Then it is actually helping people to find their own home.”

Anthony Gardner also found himself unexpectedly homeless after taking care of a parent who died. He, too, is working to get back on his feet.

“Everyone has this stereotype that the mission is just a place to lay your head,” he said. “People are just down on their luck. It gives you a place for people who were one paycheck from homelessness.”