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Buffalo homeless shelters prepare to be inspected

For about a dozen homeless shelters in Buffalo, it’s time for an inspection.

Local and state officials – under orders from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo – were set to begin checking the shelters Wednesday.

The inspections follow Cuomo’s announcement last month that homeless shelters in the state will be given a closer look because of concerns about shelter safety and conditions.

Late last month, a 62-year-old former public school teacher was found fatally stabbed in the neck in a New York City shelter.

The inspections will focus on New York City and Buffalo “because they’re the two largest concentrations of shelters” in the state, Cuomo told The Buffalo News earlier this month.

During his State of the State speech last month, Cuomo called homeless shelters in the state “unsanitary and unsafe.”

“People have been attacked and victimized in some shelters and some would rather stay outside in the frigid cold than risk entering, and they are right to do it,” Cuomo said.

Some in Buffalo, too, fear staying in shelters, said one volunteer who has worked with the homeless here for 16 years.

“They’re afraid to go into where they feel they could be injured, or harmed, or preyed on,” said Chris Cammarano, a senior volunteer at Little Portion Friary in Buffalo. “It’s scary.”

Shelters often deal with people with drug and alcohol problems, mental health issues, and conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder, Cammarano said. Homeless persons worry about theft and violence, and one man told Cammarano he had been sexually assaulted in a local shelter, he said.

A Buffalo City Mission leader looked at any inspection as a positive.

“We support this initiative 100 percent,” said Stuart L. Harper, executive director of the mission for nearly nine years.

“We feel it’s very important the public is aware of the cleanliness, the staffing levels, the environment in which these individuals are being housed,” Harper said.

Buffalo Comptroller Mark J.F. Schroeder, who will head the inspections of the Buffalo shelters, said the review will include paperwork and in-person evaluations.

“The most important next task is to make the inspections,” the comptroller said, adding that his office will prepare a report on inspection results.

Schroeder said he does not have a time frame for this review.

“We know what has to be done, and we’re going to do it properly,” Schroeder said. “It’s going to take as long as it takes.”

Inspectors will evaluate cleanliness, kitchen appliances, heating systems, furniture and beds for residents among other things.

Schroeder said he understands “what the governor is trying to do.”

Cuomo said that the state bears a responsibility for homeless shelters.

“It’s a state constitutional obligation,” he said.

In his speech last month, Cuomo noted 2,500 violations at homeless shelters in the state for safety and health issues during the previous year.

“This suffering has gone on for a long time,” he said.

At the Little Portion Friary, a shelter for homeless men and women in a former Catholic convent on Main Street, Cammarano said he’s not sure whether the shelter would be inspected under Cuomo’s directive. Donations – not government money – fund the shelter.

“I think it’s a good idea they’re inspecting the places and checking them out, because I think there are many of them that are really poor,” Cammarano said.

Cammarano, who said he was offering his personal views, questioned whether Buffalo has as many problems as in other cities.

At Little Portion – full to capacity on Monday night – eight women live in one space, and 19 men stay in a separate dorm.

The friary, open to those 18 and older but not to children, has a set wake-up time, a curfew, chores shared by residents, and rules against drugs, alcohol, and abusive behavior.

“If they have structure, then they can get some order,” said Cammarano, who supervises maintenance and volunteer training.

Cammarano said the friary, which started in 1983, provided shelter to 490 people in a year, but turned away some 2,000 others.

“They tell us that we’re the best-kept secret – we’re like a hotel,” he said. “We’re the place they want to be at.”

At the City Mission, Harper said this inspection, to his knowledge, is something new.

“I think everybody is trying to do their absolute best,” he said. “We’re trying to serve a very challenging population.”

The City Mission has between 100 and 130 residents at Cornerstone Manor, its home for women. There are about 16 beds of emergency housing for homeless women at the site, as well as three apartments for families.

In the mission’s men’s shelter, 92 homeless can be accommodated with beds, and the mission has an extra 50 cots that can be set up when needed. Adding in people in transitional accommodations, there are roughly 200 people at that site, Harper said.

“Our emergency shelter is full every night, 12 months a year,” he said.

Harper said those at the mission take pride in their work.

“We feel like we’re blessed to be able to serve these men and women who come to us,” Harper said. “No matter how hard it is. We feel called to do this work.”