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Report on Churches Offering Sanctuary to People Experiencing Homelessness

[The following is a report that I prepared for a church in Sarnia, Ontario, that had been running a “Men’s Mission” — i.e. an overnight low barrier shelter program for men experiencing homelessness — out of their church building.  They had been doing this by receiving a temporary zoning in order to run what is officially designated as a “Men’s Mission” within the Bylaws of this city.  Due to a combination of factors — discriminatory attitudes and unfounded fears expressed by well-to-do neighbours — which were then treated as logical arguments! — not to mention public criticisms made by the Executive Director of the only other shelter in town — which is high barrier and had a vested financial interest in seeing the church-based program closed — the city refused to extend the zoning of the Men’s Mission and ordered the church to stop running the shelter program.  The church then appealed this directive to a higher level of authority — something known as the Ontario Municipal Board [OMB].  This is when I entered the picture and drafted the following document for the church.  As you can see the church has dropped their appeal and will continue to offer a place to stay for men who are experiencing homelessness as a part of their religious rights and freedoms.  Below is the document I prepared regarding all of this.  I am posting it here now that the church has gone public with its decision because it may be of use to any other religious group that goes through a comparable struggle.]

1. Statement of Appeal Withdrawal

The River City Vineyard (RCV) has made the decision to withdraw its pending appeal with the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) regarding the temporary zoning it had received in order to operate a space classified as a “Men’s Mission” within the church at 260 Mitton Street North.

 2. Reason for Withdrawing While Continuing to Offer Sanctuary and Shelter to Those Experiencing Homelessness

The RCV is withdrawing its appeal because it has determined that the building designation for the property at 260 Mitton Street North is all that is needed in order to continue to offer sanctuary and shelter to people who are experiencing homelessness. Therefore, the RCV will continue to offer these services to those who are in need of them, but will not be offering these services as a “Men’s Mission” (zoned UR1-27-T3) but will, instead, will be offering these services based upon its building being designated a “church (place of worship)” (zoned UR1-27).

The RCV has made this decision despite its belief that it has good grounds for winning an appeal with the OMB (see Section 3 below). The RCV has decided to withdraw from the appeal process after consulting with several other places of worship across Canada that have had similar experiences and after consulting with some legal parties who have acted as consultants and representatives of places of worship when zoning conflicts have arisen in relation to services that places of worship have offered to marginalized segments of the civic population. In every case, it was determined that the place of worship did not need to be rezoned but could operate these services – from soup kitchens to emergency shelters – as a part of their building designation. Indeed, even in Sarnia the then Director of Planning and Building for the city, Michael Schnare, recognized this in a planning report presented at a City Council Meeting on July 16, 2001. To quote Mr. Schnare:

 In addition to religious worship and the fulfilment of spiritual needs, churches have always responded to the needs of the community by offering services as the needs arose, with the support of their congregations. Municipal By-laws were therefore developed to recognize and allow many forms of church related or church sponsored activities that ranged from bingos, soup kitchens, food banks, community halls, drop in centres, day care centres, to emergency shelters.

He then goes on to say the following:

We are of the opinion that as long as churches choose to be located in residential neighbourhoods, we will plan for them to be located there and will consider church sponsored activities as accessory uses to the church use.

Hence, back in 2001, the Director of Planning and Building for the City of Sarnia already recognized that a church, or place of worship, like the RCV, did not need to be rezoned in order to offer shelter to those in need of it (the only mistake Mr. Schnare makes in the passage quoted above is that he distinguishes between “religious worship” and offering emergency shelter services when, in fact, offering shelter to those experiencing homelessness is an act of religious worship for people of many faiths – this means that offering these services to those who experience homelessness is not an accessory use to the church use but is, itself, just as much a part of the church use as using the space to gather and sing songs or read from texts considered to be sacred).
Mr. Schnare recognizes what has been recognized in various civic communities across Canada. For example, Blythwood Road Baptist Church (BRBC) in Toronto faced similar pressures from neighbours and city councilors when they first opened their doors to serving those who experience homelessness sixteen years ago. This church is located in a residential zoning, objections and pressures arose from neighbours and City Council but BRBC was able to continue offering shelter to people experiencing homelessness – and still does so today – not because it applied for rezoning but because its building is designated as a church or place of worship.
Some churches associated with the Barrie Out of the Cold Program have also faced similar challenges because they are in residential zones, but they have all remained open and continued to offer shelter services to people experiencing homelessness because they are designated as churches or places of worship.
Similarly, 10th Avenue Alliance Church, in Vancouver, recently faced similar challenges from the Vancouver City Council and some of its neighbours based upon soup kitchen and shelter programs that operated as a part of the church. When the City of Vancouver tried to tell this church that it needed a different zoning to run these programs, lawyers from both the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Union (BCCLU) suggested that the City of Vancouver was violating their religious rights and freedoms by making this request. Michael Vonn, a lawyer with the BCCLU, called the City’s approach “highly” and “[c]learly discriminatory.” Therefore, 10th Avenue Alliance Church did not apply for rezoning but continued to offer these services as a place of worship and the City of Vancouver determined that it had no further grounds or desire to try and prevent the church from operating in this way.
In the case of 10th Avenue Alliance, the decision made by the Supreme Court of Canada in Syndicat Northcrest v. Anselem (2004) was highlighted as particularly relevant. A quote from that decision is helpful for understanding matters related to rezoning churches:

the State is is no position to be, nor should it become, the arbiter of religious dogma. Accordingly, the courts should avoid judicially interpreting and thus determining either explicitly or implicitly, the content of a subjective understanding of religious requirement, “obligation”, precept, “commandment”, custom or ritual. Secular judicial determination of theological or religious disputes, or the contentious matters of religious doctrine, unjustifiably entangle the court in the affairs of religion.

This is particularly relevant to the situation of the RCV in the City of Sarnia because, by requiring the RCV to have new zoning in order to offer sanctuary and shelter to people experiencing homelessness the City of Sarnia is engaging in precisely the opposite of what the Supreme Court of Canada counsels: it it is judicially interpreting and thus determining the content of the RCV’s understanding of its religion. However, as the Supreme Court makes clear, the City of Sarnia has no grounds for doing this.
(NB: this also means that the City of Sarnia has already acted in a discriminatory manner and violated the religious rights and freedoms of the people of Sarnia by revising its definition of a “church (place of worship)” in such a way that soup kitchens and food banks are excluded.)
Therefore, based upon these precedences, the RCV has decided to withdraw its appeal for rezoning and will continue to offer services to people experiencing homelessness based upon its designation as a church (place of worship). Although having good grounds for its appeal, the RCV did not want to set a precedent that would adversely impact other churches – which could happen regardless of whether or not the RCV won or lost. The RCV did not want to set a precedent that would require other places of worship to treat this as a zoning matter when, in fact, it is a matter of religious rights and freedoms as those are expressed within places of worship.

3. Grounds upon which the Appeal May have been Won

Having said that, it is worth noting the reasons why the RCV had good grounds for winning its appeal both in order to address some of the concerns expressed by neighbours of the RCV and in order to point out some discriminatory patterns within the current zoning by-laws for the City of Sarnia.
At the City Council Meeting on October 24, 2011, the City of Sarnia voted to deny the RCV permanent zoning status for a Men’s Mission. In retrospect, the RCV is glad that this occurred so that they did not end up setting a zoning precedent for other places of worship. However, the City’s reasons for denying zoning to the RCV should be explored.
Essentially, the City suggested that the Men’s Mission that was being run by the RCV did not fit within a stable, low density urban residential neighbourhood (UR1). Although a wide variety of special residential uses are permitted within this neighbourhood (including short-term accommodation), the belief was that the RCV Men’s Mission was adversely impacting the adjacent stable residential areas and was incompatible with the surrounding neighbourhood.
The reason why the City of Sarnia came to believe that the Men’s Mission was adversely impacting the stability of the neighbourhood was a list of fears and enumerated by others who lived near to the RCV. However, as the Government of Canada has demonstrated in a document entitled “Overcoming Community Opposition to Homelessness Sheltering Projects under the National Homelessness Initiative” (2003), such fears are often rooted in a discriminatory attitude that property-owners can possess in relation to those who experience poverty and homelessness. However, because people know that it is not socially acceptable to discriminate against a person simply because of his or her appearance or socio-economic status, neighbours often turn to other arguments, suggesting that they support homeless shelters but that their particular neighbourhood is not suitable for a homeless shelter. The Government of Canada refers to this as NIMBYism (Not-In-My-Back-Yard-ism). Thus, rather than saying “I think homeless people look scary so I don’t want them around” (which of course is the same as saying “I think people of an ethnicity other than mine looks scary, so I don’t want them around”), those who espouse NIMBYism will try to turn to the subject of zoning to prevent shelters from being in their neighbourhoods.
Not surprisingly, then, the objections voiced against the RCV Men’s Mission are not unique to Sarnia. However – and this is where both the City Planners and the RCV dropped the ball – there is a significant body of research that now exists that demonstrates that zoning-related objections to programs like the RCV Men’s Mission are almost always groundless. The primary concerns expressed by the neighbours of the RCV, and which the City of Sarnia then accepted as proof that the Men’s Mission was adversely impacting the stability of the neighbourhood were: (1) fears related to an increase of crime; and (2) fears related to a decrease in property value (these are the concerns that are most relevant to matters of zoning – concerns around the quality of care offered by the RCV, or the fact that somewhat comparable services are offered by the shelter run by the Inn of the Good Shepherd are not as relevant but will be clarified below).
Beginning with the first point, neighbours will often express fears that having the presence of a homeless shelter will lead to an increase in crime within a neighbourhood. However, as the Sarnia Police have consistently stated in City Council meetings, the RCV Men’s Mission has not led to any discernable increase in crime in the neighbourhood. While police have been called to RCV a number of times these calls have not always been related to the Men’s Mission and even when they were related to the Men’s Mission the police were called in order to address internal issues and were not called to address an increase of crime in the neighbourhood. This result is consistent with what other studies have found in cities across Canada (cf., for example, the remarks of Darryl Dawson, Senior Planner for the City of Saskatoon’s Planning and Development branch in an article entitled “Combating Community Resistance to Care Facilities” written by Lauren Vogel in the Canadian Medical Assocation Journal – – accessed 12/Feb/20). Therefore, when commenting on this issue, the government of Canada’s National Homelessness Initiative (NHI) observes that:

existing studies on the link between criminal activities and the location of homelessness shelter facilities demonstrate that these concerns have no relationship to the reality and experiences of community-based facilities for homeless people (cf. p38 of this document – – accessed 12/Feb/20).

Turning to the matter of impact upon property values, multiple studies have been done and none of them have found any significant or clear link between the presence of a program like the one run by the RCV and a decline in property value. Again, it is worth quoting the report of the NHI:

numerous studies have been conducted to test whether there is actually a relationship between property values and the introduction of low-income housing or homeless shelters, and none have demonstrated a clear link (Cummings & Landis, 1993)… The location of shelter facilities for homeless individuals and families have been found to have no significant impact on these conditions that affect property values (p38 – – accessed 12/Feb/20).

Once again, the example of Blythwood Road Baptist Church (BRBC) is instructive. I will quote from a personal correspondence with the co-chair of their Out of the Cold Program:

Our church is smack in the middle of a residential area. At the time, the average value of a home here was something like $700,000 plus. One member of our congregation, who was opposed to the program, worked it out that the value of each home would fall $40 – 50,000 if we went ahead. But it was all hot air and scare tactics. Property values were not in the least affected – today the homes run at 1 to 3 million.

Therefore, we see that both of these objections about crime and property values are not rooted in facts or in the research that exists on these subjects (research, it should be noted, that would have been easily accessible to the City Planners, so I find it odd that it was not mentioned in their reports on the matter).
Instead, what we see with the decision to refuse permanent zoning for a Men’s Mission is a case of “people zoning”. “People zoning”, according to the OMB, is defined as zoning “which depends on personal characteristics of occupants of land to explain restrictions governing adjacent land uses” (cf. Grace Villa Nursing Home Ltd. V Regional Municipality of Hamilton-Wentwork, O.M.B.D. No. 112, 1992; see also the 2010 OMB decision, Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario v Kitchener (City)). This is a practice condemned by the Supreme Court of Canada (cf. R. v Bell [1979]) and by the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) which states “that zoning by-laws should be deemed invalid if their purpose is to regulate the user, as opposed to the use of the land” (cf. p4 of this report prepared by the General Manager, Planning & Economic Development Dept. for the City of Hamilton – – accessed 12/Fec/20). It is also a practice condemned by the City Planners for Sarnia who stated, in their report to City Council on October 24, 2011, regarding the RCV:

It is important to note that preventing homeless people from location in this building through the use of zoning simply because they are homeless or exhibit certain characteristics is referred to as “people zoning” and this practice was made illegal by the Supreme Court of Canada.

However, once the objections about rises in crime rates and drops in property value are recognized as fallacious or unsubstantiated (as the research demonstrates) then any further use of zoning by-laws in order to prevent a Men’s Mission from existing at the RCV would fall into the practice of people zoning.
(NB: the City of Sarnia is already engaging in “people zoning” in relation to people who experience homelessness as demonstrated by the observation that Urban Residential classification 1-5 all list a “women’s shelter” as a permitted land use but none list a “men’s mission”, “men’s shelter” or “emergency shelter” as a permitted use – this is a clear example of people zoning based upon discriminatory attitudes related to gender).
Furthermore, it would also violate previous court decisions which state that neighbourhoods are required to accommodate diversity and difference (cf., for example, Regina v Kuepfer et al. Ontario Court of Justice (Provisional Division) Provincial Offences Court. Startford, April 26, 1996). For, as the OHRC has stated in its comments regarding Ontario’s 2005 Policy on Human Rights and Rental Housing, housing is a human right and a person’s right to housing includes “the ability to live in the community of their choice without discrimination,” which means that people “do not have the right to choose their neighbours” (cf. – accessed 12/Feb/20).
This then ties into the non-zoning related objections to the presence of a Men’s Mission at the RCV. Even if the services offered by the shelter run by the Inn of the Good Shepherd were able to meet all the needs of the spectrum of people experiencing homelessness, people are still permitted to choose to reside in other neighbourhoods if they so desire. Indeed, given the RCV’s closer proximity to downtown and other services, it seems like a pretty viable option. Of course, the truth is that the Inn of the Good Shepherd, just like the RCV or any other shelter program, is incapable of meeting all the needs of the spectrum of people experiencing homelessness, which means that it is important to have multiple programs, with different service models (for example, the Inn of the Good Shepherd runs what is known as a “high barrier” service, whereas the RCV runs a “low barrier” service, which is part of the reason why the RCV regularly takes in fellows who have been barred from service at the shelter run by the Inn). This is good not only for people who experience homelessness, but it is also good for the rest of the civic community as well – providing a person with the option of staying at a shelter means that people who experience homelessness are less inclined to try and sleep on the property of home owners when the weather gets cold (say, for example, in a garage or in a car).
Finally, as to the question of the quality of care offered by the program at the RCV, it should be the residents in the Men’s Mission who judge whether or not they are receiving what they wish from the program. Apart from consulting with the residents of the program (some of whom attended the City Council meeting on October 24, 2011, in order to support the Men’s Mission) what any neighbours or City Councilors think about the quality of care is irrelevant and is certainly not a zoning issue. Furthermore, seeking council from the Director of the only other shelter in town – a shelter that has been struggling financially and needs to maintain a high occupancy rate in order to maintain its funding – is also suspect. Such a person has a vested financial interest in the closure of the RCV Men’s Mission (a financial interest, it should be noted, that went undisclosed in discussions of this matter at the City Council meeting on October 24, 2011).

4. Summary

Therefore, the RCV believes that it had good grounds to win an appeal with the OMB based upon the following considerations:

  •  Fear about crime rates rising in the neighbourhood are unfounded.
  • Fears about property values declining in the neighbourhood are unsubstantied.
  • The presence of another shelter in town is irrelevant to the matter of zoning and suggesting that people should be happy with only one shelter option is neither best practice in social services nor is it showing due consideration for the human housing rights of people experiencing homelessness.
  • The residents of the RCV Men’s Mission should be the ones to judge the quality of the service offered there and they have spoken approvingly of the service they have received there.
  • Trying to shut down a Men’s Mission for zoning reasons, based upon the above evidence, is an example of people zoning.

However, because the RCV did not want to set a dangerous precedent for other churches, it has withdrawn from the appeal process with the OMB and will continue to offer sanctuary and shelter to people who experience homelessness. It will do this because its building designation as a “church (place of worship)” permits it to do this as an act of worship, as has been clearly demonstrated in the province of Ontario and elsewhere in Canada. To further infringe upon the RCV in order to try and prevent the church from permitting people who experience homelessness to find shelter there, is a violation of the religious rights and freedoms of the congregation that gathers there. The RCV is willing to demonstrate this in court if necessary.

5. Moving Forward

This whole process has been rather poorly handled by all the parties involved. Neither the City Planners nor the RCV appear to have spent any time examining the research that already exists demonstrating both that the fears of the neighbours of the RCV are unfounded but also the research that exists regarding community education related to NIMBYism. Many neighbours also seemed to display discriminatory attitudes against people experiencing homelessness.
Therefore, given that the RCV will continue to offer sanctuary and shelter to people experiencing homelessness, it may be useful for both the City of Sarnia and the representatives of the RCV to consider some of literature that exists on this subject.
It would also be beneficial to return to the practice of holding monthly meetings with any interested neighbours in order to educate the public about these matters as well. The previous meetings held between the RCV and its neighbours were poorly attended in part because some neighbours were not interested in any kind of education or dialog and simply wanted the Men’s Mission closed, and in part because the Pastor of the RCV presented himself in a manner that appeared antagonistic to some people and did not educate himself about how to dialog with neighours in this kind of situation. Hopefully, with some better education, and with the awareness that the church will continue to offer sanctuary to those who are experiencing homelessness, some better relationships may be developed.
All other cities studied in preparation for this document, from Toronto to Vancouver, were unwilling to actually litigate against places of worship that were engaging in acts of worship by sheltering people experiencing homelessness. Perhaps the City of Sarnia will take a different approach but, if it does, there are a few legal parties from national faith-based and multi-faith organizations who would be interested in the case… the media would also probably be interested in the case but it is doubtful if the coverage would reflect well upon the City.
Finally, this report has also highlighted two discriminatory practices encoded within the current Zoning By-Laws for the City of Sarnia. The first is the exclusion of soup kitchens and food banks from the “church (place of worship)” building designation. This is a violation of the religious rights and freedoms of people of faith within Canada. The second is the example of people zoning which permits shelters for women experiencing homelessness within all five Urban Residential neighbourhood classifications but does not permit shelters for men in any Urban Residential neighbourhood. Hopefully, the City of Sarnia will be able to rectify these errors without further action being taken (and rectifying the second means adding Men’s Shelters or Men’s Missions as permitted uses within the Urban Residential classifications, it does not mean removing Women’s Shelters as permitted uses).

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  1. This is really interesting stuff! Mind you, I once volunteered at a shelter that was on the edge of town and pretty shabby. There, what you found was what you brought, all the plates and forks and knives were odd ones. It was really quirky, and apart from the odd student, volunteers were just a notch above homeless themselves.
    New Labour came in (this was in England) and they offered a spanking new buidling in the centre of town, money for paid staff and new crockery. The residents did not own it as much and stopped coming. It reminds me of bell hooks and her notion of inhabiting and loving marginality because at least it’s yours.
    This said, I fully support your initiative. This is a very very very exciting reframing of religious freedoms and cie.

  2. This is a well written argument in defense of church ministry on church property. Although incisive I do find the author a tad undiplomatic towards the community members who objected and to the pastor who reacted to them. It is very challenging to initiate–let alone continue–a progressive dialogue with people attacking you or your mission. Not every leader has been trained in “Getting To Yes.” Aside from the precedent appealing the directive would set legally, I believe it is wiser to make every effort to negotiate compassionately, honouring your neighbours as far as is possible through Christ. Certainly the church is meant to bless everyone without discrimination. How do we bless those with material privilege without giving them preferential treatment?
    You have reminded us that the mandate of the church is to minister to the poor and broken regardless of the censure of the world. To deliver on that takes the grace of God.
    Thank you for posting the blog. I found it helpful.
    Evie in Barrie