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Is Ferry Avenue Homeless Shelter Cause For Concern Among Area Residents

By Mike Hudson

An area block club is up in arms over city officials' recent granting of a change of use variance allowing the Niagara Gospel Rescue Mission to open a homeless shelter at 1023 Ferry Ave.

"Many in our community feel the city specifically targeted our neighborhood to become the dumping ground for the city's drug addicts, alcoholics and the regions' unwanted," objected Memorial Park Block Club representative Ruth Cooper. "The same as the county does to Niagara Falls."

The Memorial Park neighborhood has six group living situations, only two of which are state run, inspected and certified, Cooper added.

"Our neighborhood is not the only neighborhood suffering problems with transient housing, flop houses, boarding homes, and other group living," Cooper said. "What kind of mayor places hard working residents in a nice neighborhood in the direct line of fire of NIMBY (Not in my back yard) accusations?"

However, Dennis Virtuoso, head of the city's Office of Code Enforcement, said the situation is more complicated. The building in question had specifically been used as a senior day care facility since the 1970s. As such, it has had a certificate of compliance despite the fact that it was essentially a group home in a residential neighborhood.

Virtuoso also pointed out that when the Niagara Gospel Rescue Mission bought the house in 2010 city officials were unaware they planned to use it as a homeless shelter. Homeless shelters were specifically banned from the Ferry Avenue neighborhood by a 2009 City Council resolution.

The spacious, 3,764-square-foot home boasts nine bedrooms and three baths. It was purchased by the mission for $40,000, records show.

"If we have to shut them down, we'll shut them down," said Virtuoso, "but they're a religious based organization and they do good work, especially in a winter like we've just had."

Virtuoso noted that he and other city officials have met with block club members to discuss their concerns and have turned the matter over to the city law department for a ruling, which is expected in the coming week.

Asked whether the matter would come before the city Zoning Board of Appeals, Virtuoso replied, "It may."

That is cold comfort for Cooper, who describes the entire situation as a "fiasco."

"Due to the city trying to cover up their "mistake" and failing to shut the place down, they will set a precedence that can possibly permit homeless shelters, flop houses, boarding homes in any neighborhood," she said. "Any attempt by the city to allow the Zoning Board of Appeals to clean up their mess would also be illegal."

Cooper charges that the city has disregarded the problem of homelessness in Niagara Falls to the point where citizens must take action themselves.

"How many residential neighborhoods have a homeless shelter? The bigger question is - Does Niagara Falls have a problem with homelessness? Or has the city created the problem?" Cooper added. "As you can see from the sex offender data we complied in November, of the 166 sex offenders who live in the Falls, only 72 were arrested."

Virtuoso maintains that if his office attempts to shut the shelter down at this point, the city will risk a lawsuit if the facility is later judged to be legal.

"We only want to do what's right," says Virtuoso.



Niagara Falls Reporter - Publisher Frank Parlato Jr. www.niagarafallsreporter.com

Feb 25, 2014