History of River City Sanctuary

One of the main tenents of the Vineyard has always been to care for the poor. In the early days, the church used to gather groceries and do a “food giveaway” to less fortunate neighbourhoods. When they moved to 260 Mitton St North in 1997, they established a food bank and soon after that, a soup kitchen. They started out with one meal per week and eventually were doing 3 per week. Eventually a clothing bank followed when they started to collect clothes and hand them out at the meals.

In October 2006, Don Wells approached George Esser and asked him if he wanted to start a homeless shelter. George had always been interested in having a homeless shelter ever since he visited Treasure House in Toronto, a project that the Toronto Vineyard was involved in. Because there was no shelter in the city, and because Don said he had the experience needed, the idea was explored. On the condition that 50 volunteers could be enlisted to help staff a shelter, the board decided to go ahead with the project.

At the time there were 3 homeless options. One was The Haven which is a youth shelter for young people; 22 years old and under. They have fairly strict rules that include doing chores and either going to school or working/looking for work. Another option was The Women’s Interval Home. This shelter was only for abused women and the reports we were getting were that if a woman wanted to stay there, she either had to be abused or to lie about being abused. There was also a “motel” homeless option provided by the county and run by the Inn of the Good Shepherd. The policy was that a person in need could stay at a local hotel room for a maximum of 30 days in a one year period. There were many people, especially the early 20’s crowd that this option proved not to be suitable for. The hotels eventually were really resistant to housing them. The program seemed to be created around the need of a house-able person who was homeless for a brief period e.g. a house fire. They would be able to find another place, within a month, and carry on with their life. There really was no option for a number of people who found themselves homeless.

Sarnia Shelter DoorOn November 6th, 2006, River City Vineyard started the homeless shelter in the basement of the church and eventually called it the "Harbour Inn Mission." Someone put a sign on the door “Homeless Shelter” and was officially open for business. After a number of 3 days, they had their first customer. Shortly thereafter, they received a notice from the city which in part said, “It is in our opinion that the use outlined above constitutes a “Crisis Care Facility.” Unfortunately, this is not a permitted use at this location. Action is required by you to discontinue all activities associated with the crisis care facility by no later than 27-November-2006.”

Harbour Inn Homeless Shelter Door SignThat Monday came and the shelter was still operating. George received a phone call from Mayor Mike Bradley and asked if they could meet. Don and George met that day with the Mayor, the city manager and several other staff members. They questioned us on what the church was doing. In the city staff’s minds, they were operating a “crisis care facility” without the proper zoning. The city staff also felt that the building was not “safe” from a building code perspective. In RCV’s minds, they were not a “crisis care facility” and were only providing a bed and a place to stay for the night. The city read them the definition of a crisis care facility which included things like “counselling”, and “provincially funded.” George assured them that we only provided a bed and did not meet the “crisis care” definition. As far as being “safe,” George told them that the space we used was the same space that the former building owner, the YMCA, used for their daycare program. If it was good enough for the children, RCV assumed it was good enough for homeless people. RCV also stated that their facility was safer than them staying outdoors. While the city couldn’t argue that, they did point out that they had no building code for outdoors but they did for indoors and they didn’t think the facilities met the proper building code for overnight occupancy. 
Early Beds at RCV Shelter
At the end of the meeting, the City asked us if RCV would 
apply for a zoning change. RCV told them that they didn’t believe a zoning change was needed because they were a church and churches were allowed to provide sanctuary. The city was not comfortable with that because they needed to have some control and asked RCV to apply. RCV agreed that they would be open to doing that but didn’t have the $1950 to apply for the zoning change. If they could come up with the money, they would consider that. The main reason they agreed to do this was to have a spirit of cooperation.

The leaders of RCV are lovers and not fighters and wanted to come to a peaceful agreement with the city. They wanted to spend our time helping people and not spend time on fighting the right to help people. They really wanted to avoid confrontation which they thought could result in mounting fines and waiting for a court date, which they certainly did not want to get involved in. In RCV’s opinion, the city made it sound like there should be no problem with RCV obtaining a rezoning so RCV was willing to go through the formality. When George and Don exited the meeting, there were a few reporters waiting to ask them the outcome of the meeting. George had mentioned that RCV would apply if they could come up with the money. The next day, a lawyer in town dropped off a cheque for $1950 and RCV took this as a sign that they should apply. 

Old Shelter Common AreaWhile RCV was working on their zoning application, they had several meetings with the public. They had several meetings with a small grou
p of neighbours and one larger meeting with about 60 people. Several neighbours voiced concerns. Myles Vanni (executive director of the Inn of the Good Shepherd) stood up and said how RCV was needed and he was glad RCV opened their doors as there were some individuals who did not qualify because of their behaviour. While it seemed like he meant to help, he actually alarmed a few of the neighbours. 
George Esser and Tom VanSickle also met with about 8 neighbours
several times. Those neighbours were not real keen about the shelter 
being in their neighbourhood. But their issues were discussed and it seemed that the issues arose because of a difference in philosophy. Some of them were members of other churches and one of these neighbours did say that they respected our stance for the poor and that their church never would do something like that. After we obtained a temporary rezoning, one of the neighbours that were part of these meetings stated, “We are all just waiting for some major problem to happen, and that will shut you down! It is not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’!”

The zoning for the RCV Site is Urban Residential 1-27 (URI-27) which officially limits the uses of the Site to "Church, school and parking only". Following conversations with the City, RCV submitted a rezoning application in early 2007 requesting that the City authorize the use of the Site as a Men and Women's Mission. The first thing the City wanted to know was how many beds RCV wanted zoning for. RCV stated that they didn’t see a need for a limit as you try and help as many people as there are need for. They said that in order to get the zoning through, the city really needed to limit the number of beds to a certain number. RCV finally agreed to 30 beds.

The Planning and Building Department came back to RCV and said that they would support our application for only 21 beds and only as a temporary measure, up to 24 months. RCV was not happy with that as their application was for a permanent shelter for 30 beds. The planning department stated that this was the best way to “sell” it to the counsel and “permanent” was a very long time. They convinced RCV that a temporary would give time to “prove” themselves. RCV told the planning department that if they go for 24 months, they should at least go for 26 months as that would bring the period to the end of April; the end of the “cold” season.

The Planning and Building Department Report, dated March 13, 2007, supported the proposed Temporary Use By-law as an interim, transitional measure to provide sufficient time for the community, under the leadership of the County of Lambton, to plan, develop and operate a permanent emergency shelter. On April 2, 2007, Council approved the temporary use of the Site as a Men and Women's Mission for up to 26 months ("Temporary Use By-law").

RCV was not happy with the temporary status of the zoning and were faced with either challenging the decision to the OMB or living with it until the period was up and apply again. They felt that we were just being used as a pawn and that they only wanted River City there until a “real” shelter could be established.

RCV was also not happy with the reference to “negative impact on the neighbourhood.” The city planner did it by citing a police report of how many calls were made to the area. While the number was “normal” for any neighbourhood, the way they presented was alarming and made it sound like the shelter had many problems, which just wasn’t true.

During the first year, there were a few legitimate complaints, but many other complaints were not legitimate. RCV did work with the city on trying to resolve issues, one of the biggest being the smoking in the front of the building. They eventually put the smoking area in the back of the property and that seemed to alleviate most of the complaints.

RenovationsIn the first two years RCV started to renovate the shelter to get it up to current building code standards. The only real improvement they needed to do was to double-drywall all the rooms with 5/8” fire rated drywall and fire rate the ceiling. As most people who have done renovations know, you always do more than you plan to, and since they were renovating, they also decided to put a kitchen facility in the receiving room.

RenovationsRCV did have the help of a good engineer and architect working for them but one mistake they made was to request the design for men and women, which resulted in the need for all kinds of extra hallways and washrooms and didn’t seem practical with the space we had. They decided to drop the women’s part and just do the men’s section. The building code deems that a woman should be able to escape though a corridor that does not pass through the men’s living space, so there were a few extra walls that had to be erected which just carved up the space in a way that didn’t make sense to the people doing the renovations.

There was a room that was originally designed for women that had an exit on each end. Originally, one of the exits went into a mechanical room and which was removed, making the exit go into the hallway that leads to the exit of the shelter. In the blueprints, the architect still had that door leading to a mechanical room and because of that, they wanted to install an extra hallway going through the main sitting room which seemed really unnecessary. The renovators really did not want to comply with that blueprint decision, feeling that it was very impractical, so at this point, another architect was brought in, asking for his opinion. If he agreed with those proposed plans, then the renovation team would do it, but he actually agreed that it was not necessary. At this point, RCV changed architects, believing that it would be best for everyone involved. ****

RenovationsWith the new architect, a new design took more time. Everything went well except one issue; window size. The new building code required the window area to be 5% of the floor area. The area that we had designated for the shelter had no windows in it and putting in 200 ft2 was next to impossible. There is another room at the end of the shelter that had windows that were 2.7% of the floor space. Our building is a 1950’s structure and built for 3 floors. Trying to enlarge the windows was too impractical and could also cause the structural integrity of the building to be compromised. The purpose of the code was not for egress (a fire escape) but for light. This code was necessary even thou the clients come at night and left in the morning and the extra light would never be realized. The building code required it and there was no way around it.

There was an impass at this point as the windows could not be enlarged. The city building department was told that there had to be another way as enlarging the windows was not an option. Six months went by. After six months the architect felt that he had no room to move due to the city’s position on the window size. At one point, RCV told the city that we could not move on our position and would continue on without their idea of complying with the building code. They started to scramble because it was really important to them that RCV comply with their building code.

As a side note, George was teaching the congregation on a concept “I love you, I forgive you, please forgive me, I take responsibility, thank you!” George had the distinct impression to say in his mind, “I love you city building department, I forgive you building department, please forgive me for needing this building permit, I take responsibility for my part in this, thank you!” Within 3 days of starting to say this many times per day, the City building department called George up and told me that they found a section in the building code that stated that a renovation job could use 2.5% instead of 5% required for new buildings!

Shelter after RenovationsThe renovations were complete 2 years after starting. The delay issues were the change of the architect and the window size problem. The other issue was money as renovations happened as the money permitted. To keep costs as low as possible, many of the renovations were done by church members, a number of the homeless guys and others who wanted to help out. At this time, a grant was also obtained from the Sarnia Community foundation for $28,000 to pay for the HVAC system in the main area. This donation made a huge difference the people involved. Many other donations were also given during this time, totaling about $86,000. Just as it seemed that the construction was complete, the architect wanted one more modification; another HVAC unit for the far new bedroom. That was installed for an additional $14,000 and made payments on that for 
Shelter 2012
$500/month (will be done at the end of 2012). So in the end, the renovations cost $100,000 of which $86,000 were paid for, basically by the generosity of the community. It was also all completed with free labour. It was a great day when the final engineering, fire and building inspections passed.

At the end of the 26 month temporary use period, another rezoning application was submitted to permit a permanent Men's Mission with 21 beds. Once again the city staff decided to amend the request from permanent rezoning to an extension of the Temporary Use By-law and wanted to only do it for 12 months. RCV was “flat out” told that they were not interested in “permanent” because once “permanent” is granted, that is “forever” and if there are problems down the road, then they have no way to “control” us. 

Shelter after Renovations
The Planning and Building Department Report, dated January 11, 
2010, notes that the shelter was having a negative impact on the neighbourhood. This was not true and not based on fact. In fact, George started to complain to the planner about this and started to get into an “email war” as he felt this totally biased the City council. 

Staff did support the extension of the Temporary Use By-law; however, they recommended that Council only extend the use for a period of 12 months from the date of the opening of the Inn of the Good Shepherd Lodge (the "Inn"). The 12 month period was intended to allow staff sufficient time to assess the role of RCV's homeless shelter both in its city-wide context and with respect to its
impacts on the 
Shelter 2012
neighbourhood. On January 18, 2010, Council voted to extend the Temporary Use By-law for a period of 12 months from the date of the opening of the Inn ("Extended Temporary Use Bylaw").

The council also suggested that they initiate a mediated meeting between RCV and the neighbourhood. These meetings did happen with Don Cook chairing the meetings. The city had a few representatives there, along with a police officer. RCV felt like they finally had a chance to find out what this “negative impact” was. It also was a chance to prove that there were no real “issues”.

The meetings were very poorly attended by the neighbours. The general response coming back to the meeting was disinterest and just a waste of time; especially in light of the fact they already stated they did not want the shelter. There were a few faithful neighbours who did come regularly. In the end, no issues came up that substantiated creating a negative impact on the neighbourhood. Council showed no interest in the outcome of these meetings.

The Inn of the Good Shepherd opened in September 2010; accordingly, the Extended Temporary Use By-law was set to expire in the fall of 2011. It took them an extra 3 months to actually open due to the difficulty of trying to meet all the county standards. On September 7, 2011, RCV submitted a third rezoning application to permit a permanent homeless shelter at Harbour Inn Shelter. The Planning and Building Department Report, dated October 18, 2011, recommended that Council deny RCV's application because the homeless shelter continued to have a negative impact on the neighbourhood and all of the emergency shelter needs of the city's homeless population were being met by the Inn of the Good Shepherd.

During this meeting, the council wanted to hear from the Inn of the Good Shepherd, Myles Vanni. This was not totally legitimate, as the Inn had nothing to do with our shelter. The council wanted to know if the Inn could handle all the homeless needs. Myles came up and did a good job convincing the council that they could handle all the current and future needs of the homeless population. The Inn should not have been factored in the rezoning application as it is not consistent with other rezoning applications. For example, when council is considering a zoning change for a restaurant, they don’t invite other restaurants to comment on whether they can handle all the current and future needs of Sarnia’s patrons.

Accordingly, Council denied our application, and RCV exercised their right to file an appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) (Case Number PLl 11242).

RCV applied for an OMB hearing on the basis that the OMB only dealt with planning issues and nothing else (e.g. they don’t deal with establishing a need or human rights issues.) A precedent had been set 10 years earlier in our city when The Inn of the Good Shepherd was given a United Church building (in a residential neighbourhood) to conduct their soup kitchen and food bank. The city approved of a zoning change application, while a few neighbours objected. A few neighbours took it to the OMB and lost. If the city granted the Inn of the Good Shepherd a zoning change to a church in a residential area, then they should also grant us a zoning if the only criteria was “good planning.” Since that time however, changes have been made to the OMB and apparently the adjudicators are more now in a place to favour the side of the city.

The plan was to keep our shelter open under Section 2 of the Charter (freedom of religion if the decision was not favourable at the OMB. RCV also planned on fighting for their cause, using human rights issues based on discrimination of a people group. While working on the OMB hearing, and speaking to other organizations who were dealing with similar challenges, it was brought out that going to the OMB could set a negative precedent for the other organizations operating under the charter. We also found out that the OMB does deal with more than just planning issues as they also have to consider human rights issues. RCV did not believe that the OMB was the best forum to deal with the human rights issues.

On April 3, 2012 RCV held a press release and declared that they dropped the OMB proceedings. They published a 16 page document supporting their decision and it took the city by surprise. They also declared that they were going to continue operating the homeless shelter based on Section 2 of the Charter. Some of the neighbours demanded that the council enforce their decision and act quickly.

The council hired Cohen Highley LLP, a law firm in London, to read over the RCV document and give them advice on what the City should do. Through their interpretation of the law, and staff’s recommendation, the City Council decided 6-2 to take RCV to superior court for an interpretation if RCV did not cease their shelter operations by 31-July-2012. RCV is currently waiting for the city to exercise their decision.

Update: Here is a Summary of what happened with the court case
RCV started Sarnia’s only homeless shelter in November 2006 in the basement of the church located on 260 Mitton St. N Sarnia, Ontario, Canada. After working with the City,and obtaining temporary zoning changes the City acquired their own shelter and told RCV that the shelter was no longer needed and no longer allowed to operate. RCV always believed it was allowed to help people under the existing zoning and as part of the Canadian Charter’s guarantee of religious freedoms and so, continued to operate. In 2014 a superior court sided with the City and ordered RCV to shut down their shelter on Father’s day June 15th, 2014. A subsequent Ontario Court of Appeals overruled the Superior court judge and ruled that RCV was within its legal right to offer shelter.

JULY 3, 2015: Ontario Court of Appeal rules in favour of River City Vineyard, allowing church to reopen shelter;

Sanctuary vs. Shelter - Why the name change?
A Homeless Shelter comes with a lot of emotions and expectations and has a definition that does not fit what River City’s mission is. Shelters are expected to be temporary, provide meals, counselling, and operate as a crisis care facility. River City has no intention of running a crisis care facility nor do they want to compete with other homeless shelters in the area. The goal is to provide a place where people will feel loved and accepted. If someone does not have a place to sleep for the night, RCV wants to offer a bed in a place that is safe and conducive to sleep. This is our biblical mandate.



Our Goal

So when you come, you are loved. No matter who you are or what you've done you are loved.

Contact Us

  • Phone: 519-383-8463(VINE)
  • EMAIL: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
  • Adress: 260 Mitton St. N, Sarnia, Ontario, N7T 6H8 (Mailing Adress)
  • Shelter Phone: 519-383-8323


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