River City to appeal court decision

Financial and moral support is arriving from across Canada to help River City Vineyard Church appeal a court decision that shuts down its men’s shelter, says Rev. George Esser.

“We’re getting support, especially from justice committees connected to various churches,” he said.

It will cost at least $12,000 to appeal the Superior Court’s recent ruling that the shelter in the church basement contravenes City of Sarnia zoning bylaws.

That’s on top of the $13,000 already paid out by River City to fight the city’s demands to close it.

“The bill (from Toronto law firm Klippenstein’s Barristers & Solicitors) was for $110,000 but we were only required to pay $13,000,” Esser said. The rest was provided pro bono.

Meanwhile, the city has spent $100,000 to cover its legal bills so far.

“There’s probably a fair amount of public sentiment not happy with us costing the city money,” Esser said. “But, remember, it was the city that took us to court.

“We really want to get along with the city but feel we were misrepresented when it was said we caused a lot of trouble,” he said.

Legal wrangling has continued for years over whether the church in a mostly residential area of central Sarnia should be allowed to shelter homeless men.

After some neighbours complained about noise and vandalism associated with the shelter, city council decided it contravenes municipal zoning bylaws and must shut down.

Last month, a Superior Court judge agreed with the city although he noted that most of the shelter’s closest neighbours support it. The judge ruled that the shelter must be closed by June 15.

Esser said the church’s board has no desire to defy the ruling and has started “winding it down now.”

“We’re not accepting new people and we’re helping current residents find a new place,” he said.

But the reality is that the five men still at the shelter have nowhere to go, according to Esser.

“They aren’t ready for their own place and they don’t meet the requirements of The Lodge (operated by the Inn of the Good Shepherd).

“There will be hardship for them. But what else can we do?”

Esser has conferred with lawyer Murray Klippenstein who advised him to appeal.

“He said we have a lot of good arguments not addressed by the judge including the Charter that says a church can provide sanctuary.

“If we leave it here, we leave a bad precedent.  The issue is we feel we have the right to provide a bed to someone who needs a place to sleep,” Esser said.

“It was never really about running a shelter; it’s more about loving people and helping them.

“…We think this case is important for churches and charities across the country,” Esser added. “City governments shouldn’t be able to close down church shelters like ours without good reason.

“We hope the Court of Appeal will agree.”

– Cathy Dobson