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Homeless shelter without a home

Dave Johnston doesn’t know where he would have gone if it weren’t for the River City Vineyard homeless shelter.
Jeff Peters, manager of the River City Vineyard homeless shelter, foreground, and resident Dave Johnston.

Dave Johnston doesn’t know where he would have gone if it weren’t for the River City Vineyard homeless shelter.

And now the 18-year-old from Kettle Point is convinced a court decision to close the controversial shelter will force other homeless men onto the street. The church shelter is located in a mostly residential area, where some neighbours don’t want it.

“These people at the church were really good to me,” says Johnston, who wore out his welcome at the city’s other shelter before arriving at River City this winter.

“I had lost my apartment and I came here with nothing, just the clothes I was wearing.  They let me stay here for three months,” he said.

“This judge has made a really bad decision.”

Johnston refers to Justice Thomas J. Carey of Ontario Superior Court, who on March 14 supported city council’s position that the church shelter contravenes zoning bylaws. Carey ordered the shelter closed by June 15.

Some neighbours of the Mitton Street shelter, which houses an average of 12 men a night, say the residents are disruptive at times.

The church applied for rezoning and, when council shot that down in a 6-2 vote, Sarnia ordered the shelter closed.  When the church defied the order, some neighbours demanded action while others pleaded with council to leave the shelter alone.

Nearly two years ago, council applied to Ontario’s Superior Court for a zoning bylaw interpretation and an injunction to close the shelter.

River City argued that as a church it has the right to provide sanctuary, even if that contravenes municipal zoning bylaws. Carey disagreed.

“The judge gave a fair ruling,” said Coun. Terry Burrell, part of the council majority that agrees the shelter must go.

“We approach this as a planning decision, not an emotional one. We appreciate the work the shelter does but it’s got to go elsewhere.”

Burrell offered no suggestions where the shelter might relocate to, and said he’s willing to commit more taxpayer dollars to fight a River City appeal.

Sarnia has spent $100,000 so far on legal fees.

“(Council is) here to speak for the whole community. We can’t pick favourites,” Burrell said. “If city bylaws are on the books we have to defend them.”

The church may appeal the court decision, said George Esser, River City’s pastor.

He helped found the shelter and even climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to raise funds for its legal defence.

“We believe the judge missed our main argument that we are here to take care of the poor.  We know this could set a precedent for other communities,” said Esser.

Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley said it’s true other communities are watching what happens here. Only he and Coun. Andy Bruziewicz voted against pursuing the legal case. (Coun. Bev MacDougall lives near the church and declared a conflict of interest.)

“I respect the court’s decision but I’m disappointed with it on a personal basis,” Bradley said. “I believe the shelter fits the role of a church.

“The biggest issue is what happens to these people if it shuts down.”

Shelter manager Jeff Peters said he knows what will happen.

“Sarnia will have guys sleeping in the parks and walking the streets at night because they’ll have nowhere to go,” he said.

“I don’t understand why the city doesn’t focus on the drug houses that they know are in a lot of neighbourhoods before focusing on a bunch of guys sleeping in a church basement.”

- Cathy Dobson

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