By Justin Sondel
Niagara Gazette — Community members supporting a Christian mission on Ferry Avenue filled council chambers Monday at City Hall, with many of them voicing their disappointment with the city's recent decision to shut down one aspect of the operation.
Leaders from the Niagara Gospel Rescue Mission were joined Monday by a large group of supporters — including people who said they have turned their lives around with the help from the mission and its programs. The group pleaded with city lawmakers to reverse a code enforcement department decision barring the Ferry Avenue building from housing homeless men overnight, a key component to the mission's overall operation.
Shaun Smith, the mission's executive director, told lawmakers the city's decision will put more homeless people out on the street where they will be more likely to get off track, as many of the men who use the shelter's beds are struggling with addiction.
"Our goal is to turn lives around so that these people who come from the streets can become productive citizens that actually contribute to society," Smith said.
The mission, which opened in 2010, had been operating an overnight program for homeless men from day one. It was forced to stop last week after receiving a letter from code enforcement officials saying the residential neighborhood where the home sits is not zoned for "transient" use.
The mission has continued to offer free meals to needy city residents and programming for people struggling with addiction.
Dennis Virtuoso, acting director of the code enforcement department, said the mission has the opportunity to apply to the city's zoning board of appeals for a use variance.
"They do have the right to appeal our decision," he said.
Virtuoso stressed that the mission was very well-run and that the issue with the operation is only related to city zoning codes.
Following Monday's council meeting, Smith said he was unsure whether the mission would ask the zoning board for a variance.
"We're looking at what options we have," he said.
Smith said the mission had always been upfront with the city about what it had planned to do and had been granted permission to house people overnight by the code enforcement department before opening.
The zoning ordinances, which were updated in 2009, became an issue after members of the Memorial Park Block Club began to complain to city officials that people using the mission's services were harassing neighbors and hanging out on the corners, a charge that Smith said is unfair.
"We are a zero tolerance, dry mission," he said.
The mission screens those enrolled in the program for alcohol and drug use and will not allow people who are using to stay at the house, according to Smith.
Smith asked the council members to do what they could to get the mission back to its work, keeping men struggling to change their lives off of the street. He received loud applause and cheers from Gospel Mission supporters as he returned to his seat.
"Our work is about permanent life change for people, a change that turns them around and gets them out of the cycle of poverty and addictions," Smith said. "This is one person at a time friends. It's one person at a time."
Smith was followed by several shelter supporters, including people who volunteer with the mission and people who had used the mission's services to better themselves.
Dan Crinieri said he was addicted to heroin when he walked through the doors of the Niagara Gospel Rescue Mission nine months ago. He has not used drugs since that day, he said.
Crinieri, who now volunteers at the mission, said for him and many men like him, the overnight program is a vehicle to completely transforming into a new person.
"The mission saved my life and if it wasn't for the mission I wouldn't be standing here," he said. "I'd be probably in state prison or six feet under."
Ruth Cooper, a Memorial Park Block Club member, told the Gazette earlier this month she and other block club members are not against providing services to vulnerable populations in the city, but are concerned about such facilities operating in residential neighborhoods.
Cooper attended Monday’s council meeting but did not speak during the public comment period, nor did anyone from the block club. She declined to comment following the meeting saying only that she still believes this is a legal issue.
Council Chairman Charles Walker noted the council has no power to give approval to a zoning variance, as that decision is in the hands of the zoning board of appeals.
He added that he believes the issue highlights the need for the city to tackle the problem of poverty.
"We, as a city, we really need to look at the whole issue of how we're addressing poverty," Walker said.
Walker said he understands the value the mission brings to the city, but the council also has to consider the concerns of the people who live close to places like the mission.
"We're not saying we want to throw anybody on the street," he said. "At the same time we have to be also concerned about the communities in which these places are placed."
In other matters, the council:
• Approved three measures related to the construction of the Niagara Falls Intermodal Transportation Center, the long-anticipated North End project, including a $22.7 million construction contract with Scrufari Construction. Work on the construction phase of the $40 million project is expected to start next month and be completed by early 2016.
• Authorized a project labor agreement with the Niagara County Building Trades and Construction Council for work to be performed on a vacant fire hall on Highland Avenue this year. The city is using a state grant to convert the building into a new headquarters for the Isaiah 61 Project, a not-for-profit that provides job training in the building trades while renovating vacant, city owned houses.
Contact reporter Justin Sondel at 282-2311, ext. 2257