By Benjamin Joe
Heart, Love & Soul was founded by a prayer group from Sacred Heart Parish more than 30 years ago. Originally a pantry group, it became a place for a daily meal, and eventually moved to Ontario Avenue in the City of Niagara Falls.
In 2018, the organization provided 135,616 meals – 94,992 that were provided by its pantry and 40,624 that were served out in its dining room.
“We’re also in the midst of developing a program called Daybreak,” said Mark Baetzhold, director of development. “Construction started in September, mostly demolition work, and we expect the new program is going to be open in June or July of 2020.”
Baetzhold explained the physical space is going to include space for showers and laundry and the entire building is going to be a “one-stop” for those in need.
“We expect those who are homeless are going to be coming in for that,” he said. “There’s going to be a small computer lab, six or seven different stations that we hope people will also be able to take some computer classes there. We have a common space, a community room. We’re not a Code Blue site, but with Daybreak coming in next year, it’s a possibility.
“We have to work out how the program is going to develop and unfold. We’re going to have space for four offices where partner agencies can come in and deliver services directly on site,” Baetzhold said. He noted there are currently 30 agencies that have signed up to provide services, if not directly, then by referral, from the building on Ontario Avenue.
“The idea of Daybreak started in 2011,” he said. “There was a task force of the Niagara County coalition for services to the homeless that started meeting to talk about ways they could better address the conditions and situations that they were finding in the city, and one of the solutions that they came up with was a one-stop center – because there were gaps in services. People would go to one community agency, be told to fill out certain paperwork and take it over here, and in the process, that never happened.”
Because of the gaps in services, people were falling in the cracks of the system. The Daybreak program and Heart, Love & Soul are trying to solve this problem, Baetzhold said.
“They recognized the gaps in services and barriers to access services were a major problem,” Baetzhold said. “The idea was that a one-stop center where multiple agencies could co-locate and deliver their services out of one location could address some of those challenges.”
As of today, the facilities of Heart, Love & Soul includes a dining room that averages 60 breakfasts and 150 lunches a day. It also holds a pantry that serves approximately 700 people a month. The food is mostly procured from the WNY Food Bank. There is also a caseworker available to help individuals complete forms and serve in a variety of needs, which will be bolstered once the Daybreak program starts up.
Agencies include Catholic Charities, the Niagara Falls Housing Authority, Niagara University and Mount St. Mary’s Hospital.
“All of those agencies will be participating in Daybreak. Department of Social Services is going to be a part of it,” Baetzhold said. “We’re looking to do some focused work with the homeless services, so Community Missions is also a major partner. Niagara Global Tourism Institute and Isaiah 61 are both partners. They hope to use our space for some training and help provide those pipelines to job training programs.”
Baetzhold also said there are many misconceptions about the homeless. He said, in his experience, most homeless do not choose to be homeless.
“There’s perhaps a grain of truth in that, some people do make that choice, but what goes into those choices is something more. Often when people do make that choice, there’s something else going on. There’s a history of trauma,” Baetzhold said. “I’d say the majority of people do not want to be on the street. The majority want to be housed and live more stably.”
“I’m encouraged by a lot of the vision and some of the economic projects that are happening here. I think there’s some good momentum, and I think it’s starting to build in the same way that Buffalo had built momentum. But it’s got to be done in a very intentional way. Heart and Soul is trying its best to ensure that the people most in need here have their needs met,” Baetzhold said.