NIAGARA FALLS – The city has told a Ferry Avenue homeless shelter it can no longer house clients overnight.
Niagara Gospel Rescue Mission, at 1023 Ferry, will still be able to provide meals and counseling programs. The cease-and-desist order issued this week applies only to the overnight shelter part of its operations, a city official said.
The city’s decision came after a review by its legal department and is based on its zoning code that prohibits homeless shelters in that area, said Dennis F. Virtuoso, director of code enforcement.
“The clients were staying overnight; they can’t do that,” Virtuoso said. “That’s against zoning law.”
Members of the Memorial Park Block Club raised concerns about deteriorating neighborhood conditions aired publicly over the past several months, most recently at last week’s City Council meeting. Members said they believed the city’s Code Enforcement Department was failing to do its job by allowing the facility to operate because properties in residential neighborhoods can’t have transient uses.
It also comes five months after Virtuoso stated publicly that, despite the block club’s concerns, the facility was “grandfathered in” and “there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Virtuoso said Thursday that the city has been conducting research in the matter since October and that the legal opinion came from Corporation Counsel Craig H. Johnson.
The review also included a meeting with representatives of the state’s building codes division, Virtuoso said. City officials have determined there are no building code issues with the property – which the city’s records list as a single-family home, not a boarding house or transient facility. There’s only the zoning issue, he said.
Niagara Gospel Rescue Mission bought the property in 2010. It had been an adult home until February 2004.
The facility is not overseen by the county Department of Social Services or the state Office of Temporary and Disability Services.
Ruth Cooper, president of the block club, called the matter a “legal issue,” saying the group tried for four years to get the city to enforce its codes.
“Our rights were violated,” Cooper said.
The facility issued a written statement late Thursday afternoon, repeating an assertion made last year that the organization was assured by the city the property could be used as a shelter and that it would not have bought it otherwise.
Organization officials said the block club has “conducted an orchestrated campaign against the mission.”
On its Facebook page, the facility asked for prayers from supporters.
“Our attorney will work closely with the city and try to resolve the matter as soon as possible,” facility officials posted. “The ministry will not roll over on this … and we know that the Lord will fight for us as we honor Him in our daily work.”
Shelter operators have the right to ask the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals for a special permit to allow clients to stay overnight at the property.
“I think that’s the next step,” Virtuoso said.