NIAGARA FALLS – Some people have nowhere else to turn. These are the folks who fall through the cracks and are ignored until they are arrested or worse.
But Community Missions offers these people meals, housing and fellowship and, more importantly, a transition back into the real world.
The Rev. Mark H. Breese, the full-time agency minister and director of ministry and community partnerships, said part of his job is shining a light on the need in the community and making sure the haves are reaching out to help the have-nots.
Breese, 49, a native of New Jersey and a minister in the American Baptist Church, admits it is not easy to serve a population that lives on the fringes of society. But after eight years with Community Missions, he sees true Christianity at work, helping the poor and marginalized.
“It’s where the rubber of faith hits the road,” said Breese. “It’s a very different field of ministry. It puts your faith in a very different context than parish ministry.”
Community Missions occupies two old hotels on Buffalo Avenue – room for the agency’s administration, a 47-bed shelter, a soup kitchen, a food pantry and a clothes closet. The organization offers 18 programs in Niagara County, including mental health counseling, transitional services for parolees and group homes throughout the county for at-risk youth.
Community Missions provides lunches for up to 120 people a day, as well as breakfasts and dinners for mission residents. In 2013, it provided more than 75,000 meals and nearly 11,000 nights of care within its crisis services program.
Breese is married to Sandra Hicks, and they are the parents of two high school-age children.
How are you funded?
Community Missions has several different funding streams. For our crisis services, the majority is from grants and direct donations from the public. We have some government funding for housing. There is money from (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development). The City of Niagara Falls has recently helped us out a bit. The majority is our fundraising.
How did Community Missions start?
We are in our 89th year. We’ve been here since 1925. The birth of the agency came out of a Billy Sunday revival. He was an evangelist in the early part of the last century. ... At the time, in Niagara Falls, we had a lot of homeless men – especially hobos. In the wake of that Billy Sunday revival in 1923, a Billy Sunday Club was started. It was a collection of downtown churches, and to address the problem they started a City Mission, which was originally on Third Street – strictly soup, soap and salvation.
What types of populations do you serve?
There are always people on the margins. In the late ’60s through the ’70s most of the state mental institutions were deinstitutionalized. The psychiatric hospitals were being closed, and the patients were just out on the street. There is a big correlation between homelessness and mental health. What the Mission found is that a lot of people coming into the shelter were folks with mental health issues. To address that we began offering programs for individuals with mental illnesses.
You certainly have expanded.
Right now we have 18 different programs at 10 or so locations – different programs at each location. Here in the homeless shelter we have our parolee re-entry program. They come out of prison and have nowhere to go and have to make all those meetings. We provide them with a place to stay, food, the clothing they need and help them meet the requirements of parole. That helps with the recidivism rate. We also run Mark’s Place, (which is) a little more roomy with kitchenettes, which serves people with AIDS – again, populations on the margins.
Who can stay in the shelter?
This is not a traditional city shelter where people come, stay for a night and leave. Here, they stay with us for a period of time, from a few days to several weeks sometimes. We work with them and get them connected to Social Services and other things they need so they can transition into permanent housing.
How do you keep it safe here?
We have surprisingly few issues. Someone who comes into a homeless shelter is generally out of options. So their main concern is where they are going to sleep and where they are going to eat. Sure you run into issues. But the parolees are grateful, and we have a very successful program.
Does it seem like people have ignored or might not know about Community Missions?
Yes. It wouldn’t have been that way 30 or 40 years ago. I’m not sure why, but I think there was more of a recognition for people who needed help. I think society puts on its blinders. People are very good in helping in the short term, but it is a chronic issue. Forty- four percent of Niagara Falls residents struggle financially.
It sounds like a tough job, seeing so many people in need.
It is exhausting. When I first went full time in 2010 that first six months were hard. You are breathing the air of suffering and stress on a daily basis. Although I had been around it I hadn’t been doing it every day. I almost didn’t make it out of that six months, until I began to realize that in the midst of all that stress and suffering there was even more hope. You can do something.
Breese said Community Missions takes donations 24/7 and is open 24/7. Donations of clothing, household items, furniture and food, as well as cash and volunteer time are always accepted. Coming up on Thursday is the Fourth Annual Lobster Fest from 5 to 8 p.m. at the LaSalle Yacht Club, 73 S. 68th St. Tickets are $50 and will include dinner and drinks, as well as live music, a basket auction and a 50/50 raffle. To be a sponsor or purchase a ticket, contact Andrea Gray at 285-3403, Ext. 2225. For more information on this and other services, contact Breese at www.communitymissions.org.
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