As she sat on a plush couch in Spot Coffee on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo, Bev, 45 of Niagara Falls, NY reminisced about how Buffalo used to be.
“What happened to Buffalo and Niagara falls, man,” she said. It’s nothing. It’s… it’s just like a shit hole! I mean, I still make the best of everything.”
In 2007, the U.S. Census Board named Buffalo the second poorest city in the nation. Factories that once supplied jobs are now vacant buildings, and one third of its adult population is living below the poverty line. On any given night, at least 2000 of its citizens are on the street.
Bev grew up in Niagara Falls, NY. She moved away 19 years ago and ended up in Canada with an abusive husband and a drug and alcohol problem.
“He used to like to slam my ankle in the car door,” Bev said of her spouse as she stared down at her worn black sneakers. “I’ve been running away from my husband.”
She learned about shelters in Canada that were meant for people in her situation and left her husband. She started living on the streets in Ottawa where heroin, or “down,” as she calls it, was running rampant. However, she insists that she only tried heroin twice and that she would never do it again.
Crack cocaine and alcohol were her drugs of choice. Bev said that the shelters in Canada, unlike in the U.S., knew why the people were there.
“They don’t condone you… they know that us on the streets have a problem…for whatever it may be drugs or alcohol, or mental illness.”
The Buffalo City Mission is the largest homeless shelter in Buffalo. Its men’s facility, located on East Tupper in downtown Buffalo, can house almost 200 men. Its women’s facility, called Cornerstone Manor, can house up to 120 women and children. The shelter serves 600 to 700 meals everyday and offers programs in both locations for its short-term and long-term residents.
Bev spoke of a homeless friend in Buffalo, named Brandon, who is an alcoholic. He was staying at the City Mission and one night, did not show up because he relapsed and drank. Because of his mistake, the Mission, supposedly, would not allow him back for six months.
“There are rules,” said Ebony Dukes, Community Outreach at the Buffalo City Mission, “if you are staying in the Emergency Shelter or Case Management… it’s like a six month ban… but it depends. We are very lenient here. There are rules in place just to avoid abuse of the system.”
“Now come on… it’s a shelter,” Bev said. “It’s supposed to be there for people who don’t have a home. If you don’t come back that night then give your bed away but you should be allowed to come back the next day. That’s what a mission is for. That’s the purpose of a shelter.”
Bev’s experience with shelters in Buffalo has been equally shaky. She stayed at Cornerstone Manor, where she says she was required to remain unemployed, stay there and “focus on herself.”
“We don’t encourage [the women] to work during their stay,” Dukes said, “but it is their choice.”
“Now, I’m 45 years old,” Bev said, “and they should sort of help me and structure me to prepare me to get out and help me to get a job if I want a job. But, they don’t want you to do that.”
Both Cornerstone Manor and the men’s facility offer long term recovery programs. The men’s program, called the Discipleship Program, is a 1 year program that requires devotion from the participant and delves into why the participant became homeless in the first place. The women’s program is about 2 years long and incorporates the same things as the Discipleship program with the idea of forgiving oneself.
These programs, unlike the short-term programs and emergency shelter, are “Christ-centered,” according to Dukes, “so we teach them the message of hope through Jesus Christ.”
The Buffalo City Mission is purely funded by private donations and the Catholic Church so the government does not regulate any of its practices or rules.
“I understand that it’s not run by any donations from the state,” Bev said. “But at the same time they just wanted me to stay there do my chores and go to church every night at 7:30. I mean, come on. You can’t force God on somebody.”
Bev has also experienced problems with the location of the mission.
“I know that some of these people in very good neighborhoods don’t want the “undesirables” hangin’ around their houses,” Bev said, “but we don’t wanna go to that area [where the shelters are] because there will be problems with somebody harassing you to do sexual favors to come do drugs and for people who are trying to not do drugs or alcohol going over to the one at Cornerstone and going to the store… its right there in the Fruit Belt.”
The Buffalo City Mission takes advantage of its location to outsource some of its residents.
“Because were located right in the medical district, we have a close relationship with places like Buffalo General,” Dukes said, “that have detox centers and counseling as well as rehab. We also work on that inner person right here in our walls… in our recovery programs.”
However, the issue, according to Bev, is the accessibility of drugs and alcohol right outside the Mission’s doors.
“The methadone clinic is right down the street,” Bev said. “It’s right there staring you in the face.”
For Bev, the Buffalo City Mission is not a home.
“I love Elmwood,” Bev said, “I almost never go off Elmwood. I’m always right here. You’ll always find see me here, and if I’m not here, I’m sleeping somewhere [outside].”
In addition, Bev’s fear of being indoors for a long period of time keeps her outside.
“It’s from when my husband used to lock me up in the house,” Bev said.
According to Ebony Dukes, many homeless people choose to live on the streets instead of in the shelter.
“Just recently I talked to a [homeless] guy who put it in perspective,” Dukes said, “he was like ‘I was cold, I was hungry but I would not go to the City Mission because of my pride.’”
Dukes said that mental illness and drug addiction also keep people from going to the Mission. But she says that throwing money at the homeless people is not always the best option.
“The best piece of advice I can offer… is to refer them to the City Mission,” Dukes said. “We’re sort of a one stop shop. If we can’t help you, we’ll find someone who can.”