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ECC Flickinger gym converted to 70-bed homeless shelter

Mike Desmond/WBFO

With Erie Community College closed for the COVID-19 crisis, a gym in the college's Flickinger Center has been turned into a 70-bed homeless shelter.

The beds have the required social distancing spread, sprawling across the multiple basketball court space. They replace an array of smaller and far more cramped shelters in downtown Buffalo.

The new location allows more attention to the health status of homeless men, particularly the coronavirus. BestSelf Behavioral Health Homeless Services Director Nadia Pizarro said the homeless are not as concerned about the virus as basic human needs.

"Our people are more concerned about where to be safe, where to be warm, where to get food, where to get clothing," said Pizarro. "On my walk up here today at six o'clock, there was many people already here and they were soaking wet because it poured. They're more concerned about that stuff than any statistics or any CDC information or any other thing. So it's up to people like us to teach them."

Pizarro said the center will likely collect about all of the homeless men downtown, with only a few others who prefer not to come inside.

Joseph Fischer was one of the homeless men waiting along South Division Street for a bed in the gym. A combination of job loss and family problems put Fischer on the street three weeks ago.

"I went to Social Services. They put me up in a motel room for one day and said after that one day, I would be responsible for the next $20 a day after that," Fischer said. "I had no money, so I took the one day, got some rest because I knew I was coming back on the street."

Jeffery Brown said he had been homeless for about eight hours after leaving a detox center just up Elm Street. He was waiting to access the new homeless shelter on the second floor of ECC's Flickinger Center Downtown. There was room.

Brown said he knows something of the death toll of COVID-19, from what he has heard and read.

"What I do know is it's a genuine killer. I do know that. I know that it has killed so many people, from France, all the way to London, Spain, it killed a lot of people. It's killing a lot of people here in the United States," he said.

Brown said he appreciates the efforts of health care workers and first responders who are fighting back against the virus.

Jean Bennett, housing and homeless director for the Restoration Society, said the homeless men entering the center are checked for health status.

"We implemented a screening program initially, obviously, talking to people about whether they traveled outside of the area," Bennett said. "Now that we know we have community spread, we are using a different screening tool, which talks about symptoms, fever, cough, sore throat, that kind of thing and we're taking temperatures before they come in. So they're screened right at the door."

This shelter replaces the beds in other downtown centers which cannot meet social distancing rules. It could hold some more beds if necessary and is clearly available until schools reopen.

The Rural Outreach Center in East Aurora is also in operation for those in need of shelter in the southtowns.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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