After receiving a zoning infraction notice that threatens to shut down a drop-in service that helps hundreds in the London, Ont., homeless community each day, Ark Aid Street Mission says it’s weighing its options.
The organization received notice last week from city officials that its drop-in service at First Baptist Church violated the church’s zoning designation as a place of worship. The downtown church is being used as a temporary location for Ark Aid as its main Dundas Street location in the Old East Village is being renovated.
In a statement to Global News on Friday, city officials said there had been “a number of complaints about the services being delivered through Ark Aid at the First Baptist Church.”
“Because Ark Aid is leasing the space and providing the services as a separate entity, they are not operating as a place of worship, which is a permitted use, but rather as an assembly hall, which is not,” the statement added.
The city provided three options to bring Ark Aid’s service into bylaw compliance: Give First Baptist control of the drop-in service, have First Baptist seek a zoning amendment or have Ark Aid move to a different location.
Ark Aid executive director Sarah Campbell tells Global News that her team has had “good conversations with people in zoning and bylaw,” but says she’s seeking more clarity from the city as Ark Aid believes “this is a little bit of a semantics issue.”
“We’re just looking for more clarity to see if we’re misunderstanding something or if maybe there was just a little bit of reactivity because of the dislike of the services in the core,” Campbell said.
“We’re continuing to look at our options and we’ve had some really generous reach-outs from lawyers and people who do zoning work to, pro bono, give us some advice.”
Campbell says faith leaders in the community are invited to a meeting at First-St. Andrew’s United Church to discuss the zoning infraction notice and how it may impact other places of worship in London.
The meeting will also discuss ways to respond to homelessness in the upcoming winter months. It’s set for 2 p.m. on Tuesday.
Community support grows
In the meantime, support continues to grow for Ark Aid’s effort to keep its drop-in service at First Baptist.
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An online petition that asks for Ark Aid to be allowed to do so has garnered more than 800 signatures, as of Monday afternoon.
Rev. Kevin George of St. Aidan’s Anglican Church launched the petition and says he’s concerned about what the zoning infraction could mean for other places of worship.
“If it’s a group renting the local temple or mosque or church and running an event and the neighbours don’t like that … and they complain and they’re able to point to what happened at First Baptist as a precedent … then it would be us next,” George said.
George has also published an open letter, calling on other faith leaders to show solidarity, particularly those who belong to places of worship that are set to host polling stations in London’s upcoming municipal election.
George’s argument is that if Ark Aid’s operation of a drop-in space inside First Baptist is a misuse of a place of worship zoning designation, then so, too, is the city’s operation of a polling station inside a church.
“I’m calling upon the churches that have those leases to terminate them and take a stand in resistance and say, ‘If this is the way we’re going to interpret that bylaw, then we’ll be forced to interpret it that way as well.'”
Rev. Matt Martin has taken up George’s offer and says St. Luke Worshipping Community/Luke’s Place London, an Anglican church just north of Western University’s main gates, won’t host a polling station if First Baptist can’t host Ark Aid.
“What (the city) is suggesting is that the homeless aren’t allowed in because it’s not a worship community or a worship ceremony, and yet their polling station is certainly not worship-oriented either,” Martin said.
“It is very biblical and very much a part of what we believe in our faith is to feed the hungry and help the poor and do all we can for them. If that’s not an act of worship then I don’t know what is.”
The city has given Ark Aid until Oct. 20 to respond to its zoning infraction notice.