Erie Community College – a place known for giving people a new start, a second chance – is reaching out to those who need one the most: the homeless.

The college is partnering with the Buffalo City Mission and Cornerstone Manor for an initiative they’re calling “College for the Homeless.”

Instructors will teach classes at the City Mission, the men’s shelter on East Tupper Street, and Cornerstone, the women’s shelter on East North Street, to help those qualified to earn their general equivalency diploma or prepare for college courses.

The goal is to enroll them at ECC for a one-year certificate program or two-year degree that could get them a decent job.

Classes are set to begin in January.

“We can’t just house people and provide them with food, clothing and shelter,” said Richard Washousky, executive vice president of academic affairs at ECC. “We need to create educational and career opportunities for them.”

“For us, this is huge,” said Stuart Harper, executive director of the City Mission. “We’re talking about making a change in an individual’s life forever.”

It may sound a bit too idealistic, but Harper said that’s because people have an outdated perspective of what it is to be homeless.

The face of homelessness has changed, Harper said.

“Most people have the stereotype of a homeless person being that old, scraggly guy pushing a shopping cart full of bottles down the street,” said Dale Zuchlewski, executive director of the Homeless Alliance of Western New York.

But only about 7 percent of the estimated 5,000 homeless people in Erie County fall into that category, Zuchlewski said.

Forty percent are homeless for the first time, he said.

“Most people that become homeless honestly don’t need a lot of assistance,” Zuchlewski said. “They’ve just run into a life event.”

“They don’t make a lot of money. They get laid off or their hours cut. They get sick. They just find themselves in a financial spot,” Zuchlewski said. “That’s most of the population, actually.”

In fact, he said, one of the largest segments of homeless are males between the ages of 18 and 24 who never made it into the job market during the recession.

“So what ends up happening,” Harper said, “is our homeless population tends to be younger than what most people think – and better educated than what most people think.”

That’s where ECC comes in.

Harper’s staff has a transitional program to help treat some of the underlying issues facing the homeless, such as addiction, violence, mental illness and domestic abuse.

But even if they deal with those problems and get off the streets, they many times fall back into their old habits, Harper said.

They lack the job skills to get out of poverty. And they lack hope.

ECC has for years provided vocational training and the chance at an education.

In 2001, the college began what it calls the “Education 2 Recovery” program, which works with local drug courts to help recovering substance abusers get an education while going through rehab.

More than 4,000 have passed through that program during the past 10 years, and as many as 600 have gone on to graduate from ECC with a degree or one-year certificate, Washousky said.

College for the Homeless will work much the same way.

Four instructors will provide free adult learning courses at both the men’s and women’s shelters to help people earn their GED or prepare for college courses.

An ECC staffer and several interns also will visit the shelters once or twice a week to assess educational and social needs, test people for potential career options or help fill out the admissions and financial aid forms needed to attend ECC.

“I would suspect some of these individuals are very capable of getting an education academically but have never had the support services and structure to do that,” said Washousky, whose background is in areas of psychology, addictions and mental health. “We want to provide that.”

Obviously, not all those who are homeless can make this step, Harper said.

But of the roughly 400 men and women in the two emergency shelters, Harper believes as many as 100 could be ready to start down this path come January.

“There’s such a diversity of programs at ECC,” Harper said. “It provides a tremendous steppingstone for our men and women. Their future can be hopeful. It doesn’t have to be this desert of poverty.”

The college’s motivation isn’t entirely altruistic.

ECC – like other colleges in regions with declining populations – is projecting a shrinking pool of students graduating from high school in the next several years. This is just one venture that has the potential to bring a few more students through the door.

Nonetheless, ECC and the City Mission should be congratulated for the effort, Zuchlewski said.

“At first you think it’s innovative, but actually, it’s common sense,” Zuchlewski said. “I’m surprised no one has done it before.”