Ark Aid Mission has been told by the city to either seek a zoning amendment where it is currently housed or cease services altogether by October 4.
First Baptist Church trustees received notice from by-law enforcement Friday morning. The zoning letter indicates that the church is zoned as a place of worship, and that use of the space by Ark Aid has been deemed as the operation of an assembly hall.
“Many of our social services, hospitals and other critical elements of how we serve in our community started from the church,” said Ark Aid Mission executive director Sarah Cambell, during a news conference in the church basement.
“And so if the church can’t be a place of welcome for this community, where can we be welcoming people who are not welcome in other places? This is particularly important as we look at winter months coming, as we look at the difficulty in finding space for these kinds of services.”
Serving community is a part of worship, mission argues
Campbell and First Baptist Church pastor Al Roberts have drafted a letter in response to the bylaw department arguing that their services are an expression of worship. In the letter, they question why the building has been considered outside of the “place of worship use.”
Construction on Ark Aid’s Dundas Street location has been ongoing since April, and a suspicious fire in May caused extensive damage to its main building. The mission still needs to raise a million dollars in capital funds in order to complete renovations and add a full suppression system before it can go back to that location.
Over the summer, the mission has offered nightly meals, showers and other services to up to 400 people daily out of First Baptist Church. While there, Campbell said, the mission has worked closely with the city, and that the bylaw notice came only after the city received a complaint.
“It was very surprising that we got this response because we work with the homelessness prevention and housing stability team on a regular basis. We have coordinated informed response, which is a bylaw division, in our space all the time,” she said.
She said the next steps for the mission are to continue communication with the city and attempt to postpone the necessity to comply with the order, and clarify what it means.
“We will find a way to serve that community, whether our doors have to be closed or or not. In fact, we are actually hoping to open our doors even longer as a response to the business community’s desire to see people inside more,” she said.
Businesses grapple with complexity of situation
Businesses along Richmond Row have been circulating a petition calling for all levels of government to address safety concerns in the area. It’s received at least a hundred signatures.
Shop managers and owners say they’ve had to deal with smashed windows, fires, defecation, and threats of assault while trying to recover from losses incurred during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I just want to see something being done,” said George Wardrope, store manager at Marble Slab and one of the signers of the petition. “I want to see action happening for the city and help people around the city.”
When asked about the by-law notice sent to the First Baptist Church, Downtown BIA executive director Barbara Maly said she was just as surprised as Campbell.
“It’s unfortunate that it’s come to this,” said Maly. “I know our businesses and even myself, we’ve been trying to set up meetings, just trying to discuss what is possible, what is it that we might be able to do to help.”
In a statement, the City of London said there have been a number of complaints about the services being delivered through Ark Aid at the church, and that municipal bylaw has an obligation to enforce the by-laws of the community.
It said options for the mission are for the church to assume care and control of the services being delivered. The church can alternatively choose to pursue a zoning amendment, or it can request Ark Aid to find an alternate location.