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Apr 29 - May 07, 2014

So Many Questions, so Few Answers on Ferry Ave. Homeless Shelter Fiasco

By Mike Hudson

April 29, 2014

Shaun Smith

The Niagara Gospel Rescue Mission is suing the city of Niagara Falls to overturn its April 8th order preventing overnight housing at what has become a homeless men's shelter at the corner of Ferry and Memorial Parkway. Last Friday, State Supreme Court Justice Frank Caruso issued a temporary restraining order enjoining the city from shutting down the shelter. At least temporarily transient men can stay in the shelter overnight.

The case hinges on whether the city's zoning ordinance bars the use of the residential home as a homeless shelter at the time it opened in July 2010 or whether it was grandfathered in after a 2012 zoning amendment made it illegal in this residential neighborhood. In 2010 Shaun Smith, who said he received a "vision from God," opened the homeless shelter at 1032 Ferry St. Now residing at 4707 Garlow Road in the Town of Niagara, in the past few years, Smith has lived in Buffalo, North Tonawanda, and Lewiston.

Critics say Smith makes his way from his own park-like residence to "provide some supernatural help," shelter and food to the mentally ill, ex-cons, drug addicts, alcoholics, and chronic welfare recipients who have swarmed like flies to Niagara Falls since Mayor Paul Dyster took office. Smith, however, does operate a "dry" facility, which means a transient must be sober when he appears for an overnight stay. The group home houses from 8-12 men per night.

Earlier this month, Smith and his supporters pleaded their case to the City Council after the city code enforcement department issued a cease and desist order on April 8th requesting that Smith shut down his homeless shelter. Representatives of the Memorial Park Block Club, along with neighbors, taxpayers and homeowners, appeared before Council on March 31st to express how they were fed up with four years of the Dyster Administration's and the Office of Code Enforcement's failure to enforce the City's Zoning Laws.

Feeding the poor at Niagara Rescue Mission.
The many supporters of the Niagara Gospel Rescue Mission had to be asked by Council Chairman Charles Walker where they were from. Many were reluctant to say. Even Smith had to be prompted by an audience member to state his address. Among supporters of Smith's homeless shelter were people from Lewiston, West Seneca, Williamsville, Clarence, Lockport and other areas who, neighbors say, want to continue using the City of Niagara Falls as a dumping ground for their nonworking, unwanted, undesirable and disadvantaged citizens. The Gospel Mission claims they are helping to "break the cycle of poverty and help homeless people" in Niagara Falls.

However their Facebook page suggests a different story, with posts about indigents from Brooklyn, Florida, New Hampshire, and over-crowed missions in Albany on "whirlwind tours of the country" all landing in the City of Niagara Falls. It reads like an Underground Railroad guide for homeless people. In addition to shelter for the homeless, the Mission provides free meals to the surrounding neighborhoods' "poor." From near and far, about 70 people per day (2,000 a month) are fed at the mission.

The fine Christian people supporting the mission's good works slapped our local Community Mission in the face by claiming they closed their doors to a homeless person and he froze to death on the street. Even our local churches which provide some of the best programs and volunteer services for the poor have been accused of not providing proper or adequate service. They accused the block club of forcing people back on the streets. However, by their own admission, Niagara Gospel turns people away who are drunk or strung out on drugs. Just where do these well-meaning Christians think these drug addicts and drunks go?

The mission is supported by Mayor Dyster and his friend, former Buffalo Common Council member Dale Zuchlewski, now Executive Director of WNY Homeless, serving the City of Buffalo. Why have Dyster, who claims to be a supporter of the Block Clubs, and his City Administrator Donna Owens, consistently failed to address the illegal homeless shelter that has been in direct violation of the zoning laws since 2010? Meanwhile, the court battle looms over whether they can continue.

The mission's attorney, Michele G. Bergevin, is expected to argue that, at the time the shelter opened in 2010, there was no law that specifically barred the use of residential properties as homeless shelters. The zoning ordinance was amended to bar homeless shelters in residential zones in 2012, Consequently, the Ferry Avenue shelter should be "grandfathered" as a pre- existing legal use. Councilman Andrew Touma, who has made unannounced visits to the home, said he "was taken aback by what they had offer."

Asked whether he minded if this same shelter moved to his neighborhood, Touma answered, "If they are what I think they are, I would not mind. They seem to be a difference maker to me. Some of the people who go there are unbathed; some of them have long beards. The neighbors might be intimidated. I understand that. If it is not zoned correctly, then they should find another facility. . . Is it the right location? Maybe not. Is it the right service? I think it is the right service for a poverty-stricken city like Niagara Falls."

Niagara Rescue Mission was formerly a private home.





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