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River City wins appeal, but future of closed homeless shelter uncertain

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Journal Staff

The Ontario Court of Appeal has ruled River City Vineyard’s homeless shelter does not contravene a Sarnia bylaw, and should therefore never have been forced to close.

But whether it will ever reopen is not yet clear.

In a judgment handed down July 3, a three-member panel dismissed the city’s application for an injunction, saying the shelter is a “church-sponsored community activity or project” and therefore allowed under the city’s bylaw.

George Esser, River City’s pastoral team leader, told The Journal church officials would be meeting to consider the next step, including whether the shelter will reopen.

“We lost all the infrastructure and funding when we had to close last June,” he noted.

The case is about more than one Sarnia church, he added in a release.

“It is about churches across the country being allowed to show love and compassion for those in need. It is about showing that homeless people are welcome in our neighbourhoods and should not be treated like outcasts.”

City council’s decision to force the closure of the Mitton Street facility and the subsequent legal fight has cost taxpayers $168,296 to this point.

In March of 2014, a Superior Court judge ruled the shelter was breaking a city bylaw. River City complied and closed the small facility for homeless men last June, but also appealed.

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

In last week’s ruling, however, the court did not consider the Charter argument but found the earlier judge had erred in interpreting the bylaw.

Sarnia council must now decide whether it wants to take the fight to the final level, the Supreme Court of Canada.




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