GUEST COLUMN: There needs to be a better way

Editor’s Note: A homeless shelter operated by River City Vineyard has been ordered closed by June 15 because it breaches Sarnia’s zoning bylaws. The church and its pastor, George Esser, are appealing the Superior Court decision.

George Esser

Municipalities are handicapped when it comes to addressing homelessness.

For one thing, they were downloaded the problem from the province with few tools or resources to tackle the problem. Municipalities rely heavily on zoning, as it is one of the few legal tools they have to work with. While zoning has its place, it is often used where other tools might be better suited.

Zoning is one of the more important components of “Land use law” and was not designed to be about democracy, social justice or equality. It has more to do with protecting property values, and the segregation and grouping of land uses. From a top level, it makes a lot of sense. It helps keep commercial, residential and industrial spaces separate for safety, noise, traffic and other reasons. In other words, it segregates and sections space according to uses. It is supposed to govern uses and not people. The land uses, in and of themselves, have no rights.

Because homeless people do not own or occupy property in a zoned area, they are excluded from being part of a “rights based” approach (e.g. the right to have shelter) because rights, in zoning law, are tied to uses and not to persons. Therefore, the whole “land use” planning and zoning system can do little to provide a meaningful solution to those who are homeless.

For a city like Sarnia to change a land use, it must follow procedures for public participation and allow input. But here a problem arises in that zoning applications resist democracy. The people who need shelter do not get an equal say to the people who have legal occupancy of land in relationship to the property in question. Residents, tenants and ratepayers tend to have more say. While the process, in theory, is open to all concerned citizens, it seems more weight is given to those who legally occupy the surrounding properties. It seems impossible for homeless advocates to argue based solely on rights. That is why I believe democracy is not at the forefront of land use planning and zoning. It is about who is occupying the land and how to protect it, especially when the concerned are politically savvy.

Zoning is not the best way to deal with homelessness and other social issues when the heart of democracy says, “We are all equal and have an equal say.” We need to find a more democratic way.

George Esser is the pastor of River City Vineyard