Homeless Jesus: Sculpture unveiled as shelter closes

River City Vineyard Pastor George Esser with Homeless Jesus, in the studio of artist Clay Williams Submitted Photo

Any city councillors already squeamish about forcing River City to close its homeless shelter will find no solace in Sarnia’s newest piece of street art.

“Homeless Jesus” depicts a shrouded figure curled on a park bench. It appeared Sunday in front of River City Vineyard after the church obeyed a court order and closed it doors to the homeless.

“When we put people on the street, we are putting Jesus on the street,” said pastor George Esser, who created the sculpture with his nephew and a Michigan artist.

“We did what we could to help those who needed help, with the resources we have.”

The church-run homeless shelter was ordered closed by June 15 because it breaches Sarnia’s zoning bylaws.  Though the church complied it has appealed the Superior Court decision.

Esser said five homeless residents who were forced to leave have found temporary accommodation but are still homeless.

Sarnia’s other shelter, Good Shepherd’s Lodge, isn’t an option for them for several reasons, including a “no criminal record” policy it has, he said.

The Homeless Jesus idea was adopted from a North Carolina Church that created a similar sculpture. Esser said he was purchasing the materials in a craft store with his nephew Aaron Esser when they encountered artist Clay Williams, who invited them back to his Imlay City, Michigan studio.

Total cost of the work was $625 (US), including the bench, he said.

Lawyers representing River City say the men’s homeless shelter Street is a community project sponsored by the church, and therefore permitted under Sarnia bylaws.

They also argue a permanent injunction would prevent River City from fulfilling its religious duty to provide shelter to the homeless, thus infringing it rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Sarnia has spent about $100,000 so far in legal costs trying to permanently close the shelter.

– George Mathewson