OPINION: Homeless court fight a pathetic waste

George Mathewson

Sarnia’s dogged court fight to prevent The River City Vineyard church from giving homeless people a hot meal and a bed for the night has cost taxpayers $163,730.39.

So far.

What city hall has spent on legal fees could have provided several thousand homeless people with emergency overnight accommodation.

The money paid to lawyers could have rented an average one-bedroom apartment in Sarnia for the next 19 years. Or, put another way, provided 19 people with an apartment for a year.

For $163,000 you can buy an entire house, for Pete’s sake.

In a recent report to council, city staff acknowledged the latest court appeal has cost taxpayers “substantially” more than expected, in part because the Ontario Human Rights Commission intervened on the church’s behalf.

Only because its legal team cut the city a break did the latest bill only total $58,000.

This embarrassing display of intransigence has gone on too long.

Spurred by neighbours of the Mitton Street shelter who said residents were disruptive – and they probably were at times – the city told the church to move its homeless shelter or shut down because it was in contravention of zoning bylaws.

Two years ago city council applied to Ontario’s Superior Court for an interpretation of its bylaw and an injunction to close the shelter.

The city won, and in March a judge ruled the church shelter was breaking the rules and ordered it closed by June 15.

River City complied, but also launched an appeal. And here we are.

A decision is expected within six months, but whatever the outcome it may not be over.

If the church wins, the new Sarnia council will have to decide whether it wants to lawyer up for another round or throw in the towel.

If the city wins, River City could very well find enough financial support from legal and church groups to take its cause all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The Human Rights Commission has already come to its defence, arguing the church’s mission of helping the poor and disadvantaged is protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

It’s a fascinating legal question, no doubt. But I for one don’t want another dime wasted trying to prevent good people from offering a helping hand to our city’s most vulnerable residents.