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Buffalo's dubious distinction as one of the nation's poorest large cities remains intact, according to the most recent federal data on poverty - a reality that has an East Side nonprofit organization expanding its work in one of the city's most impoverished neighborhoods.
Gerard Place on Sunday announced plans to establish a new $3 million community center where vocational training in nursing and the allied health professions will be offered, as part of the growing organization's efforts to break a poverty cycle in the Bailey-Delavan neighborhood.
That cycle has continued in some parts of Buffalo for generations, and the city's poverty rate remained stuck at about 31 percent in 2011, statistically unchanged from 2010, according to recently released Census Bureau data.
An estimated 78,000 people in Buffalo were living below the poverty line last year, placing the city among the top 10 percent of the nation's poorest big cities.
Gerard Place, which has been providing transitional housing since 2000 for some of the city's poorest women and children, plans to expand programing in Bailey-Delavan, where the poverty rate is closer to 40 percent and where 85 percent of female-headed households live well below the poverty line, according to David Zapfel, executive director.
The 14 families currently living in Gerard Place apartments are "pretty much a composite of what poverty is in Buffalo," he said.
Current resident Clevette Mc-Kenzie, 26, came to Gerard Place 19 months ago with a newborn son, Jeremiah, and dim job prospects after being laid off and hearing from potential employers that she needed a General Educational Development (GED) diploma.
McKenzie was living with her mother, but "she was in the same predicament I was in, having trouble paying bills," she said.
The agency has developed a track record for helping boost women and children out of homelessness and poverty. About 95 percent of the 220 families that went through the transitional housing program since 2000 were able to stay in a permanent home for more than a year after graduating from the program - one of the best success rates in the country for a program of its kind, said Zapfel.
Gerard Place hopes to transfer that kind of success to more people by renovating the dormant 33,000-square-foot former St. Gerard parish hall on Bailey Avenue into a community center and teaming up with Erie 1 BOCES to offer courses in nursing, certified nursing assistant, home health care and medical billing careers.
The neighborhood's unemployment rate for people who don't have a high school diploma or vocational training is an astounding 56 percent, said Zapfel.
"We really want to attack that unemployment," he said. "We want to do training where they can have a career."
McKenzie expects to get her GED within the next several months and find a job as a certified nursing assistant.
"They got me to the point where I'm ready to move," she said of Gerard Place.
Buffalo is hardly alone among urban areas struggling with high rates of poverty. In cities of at least 100,000 people, Buffalo ranked 21st in the Census Bureau data.
Syracuse, which had a 36.7 percent poverty rate in 2011, was the fifth worst in the country by that measure. And Rochester also had a higher poverty rate than Buffalo, with 35.5 percent of its residents living under the poverty line.
Meanwhile, the nation's overall poverty rate - 15 percent - was the highest since 1983.
Roughly 46.2 million Americans were below the poverty line - the greatest number in the more than 50 years that records have been kept.
Detroit retained the title of America's poorest city - small, medium or large - with a whopping 41 percent of its residents living below the poverty line.
Buffalo was the fifth poorest among cities with a population of at least 250,000 - behind Detroit, Miami, Cleveland and Newark, N.J.
Dale Zuchlewski, executive director of the Homeless Alliance of Western New York, took little comfort in seeing Buffalo drop two spots from third-poorest - a ranking from a few years ago that shocked many Western New Yorkers.
"It's just everyone else has gotten worse. That's nothing to cheer about," he said.

email: jtokasz@buffnews.com and jrey@buffnews.com