London church will no longer be poll location if city won't let First Baptist host homeless services

A London, Ont., priest says he will no longer allow his church to serve as a polling station in the October municipal election in protest of a bylaw enforcement notice issued against a downtown church that provides services for homeless people. 

Rev. Matthew Martin says city should allow services for homeless near Richmond Row

Rev. Matthew Martin of St. Luke's place in London says he's pulling out of allowing his church on Richmond Street to be used as a polling station. He's unhappy the city hit First Baptist Church on the Park with a bylaw infraction for leasing a space to Ark Aid Mission. (Submitted by Rev. Matthew Martin)

A London, Ont., priest says he will no longer allow his church to serve as a polling station in the upcoming municipal election, and is calling on other faith leaders to do the same to protest a city bylaw that is forcing a downtown church to stop providing services to people living on the streets. 

Rev. Matthew Martin operates St. Luke's Place church on Richmond Street near the Western University gates. 

He had planned to allow the city to open a polling station at his church for the Oct. 24 municipal and school board elections. Now, city election officials will have to find another location, Martin said. 

"We need the city to back down on this and do the right thing. It's a bad policy. It was a mistake on their part and you know, the church is all about forgiveness. I think we can forgive and move on and do the right thing."

Martin and other London faith leaders are speaking about about the city's decision to issue a bylaw infraction notice on Friday against First Baptist Church on the Park. The church, at 568 Richmond St. between Victoria Park and Richmond Row, had been leasing space to Ark Aid Mission since the spring. Ark Aid provides outreach services to people experiencing homelessness. 

The city's bylaw enforcement department issued a notice on Friday saying First Baptist was violating the zoning rules by renting space out to another organization. Ark Aid is using the space to operate a meal program and drop-in centre. 

The church has been told to either seek a zoning amendment or cease services altogether by Oct. 4. Ark Aid is operating out of the First Baptist basement while it repairs fire damage and renovates its Dundas Street location.

Since the spring, some Richmond Row business owners have complained they're increasingly dealing with problems in their shops, including damage to merchandise and harassment of employees. 

The city's move could be bad for all faith groups, Martin said, pointing out that churches across the city rent out spaces to community groups for lessons, meetings and other gatherings. He worries a similar infraction notice could be issued to churches that rent to groups such as the Girl Guides and Alcoholics Anonymous. 

First Baptist Church opened its doors to Ark Aid in the spring. Hundreds of people in need have been making use of its meal and shower services since. (Angela McInnes/CBC)

"It really is hypocrisy to say, 'We're not going to allow our homeless people to have what they need, but we're going to still allow the polling stations to be in our churches,'" said Martin. 

Martin said he emailed city officials to inform them he was pulling the polling station. In response, he was told the bylaw being used at First Baptist does not apply to polling stations. Martin's church stood to collect a $300 fee to host the polling location.

Notice came in response to a complaint

Coun. John Fyfe-Millar — whose downtown ward includes First Baptist — said the bylaw enforcement officers had no choice but to enforce the rules. The infraction notice came in response to an anonymous complaint.

"Our goal is not to see the service to our most vulnerable community not happen, but we need to ensure we have the proper location," he said. "There are lots of locations where this can go on." 

A spokesperson for Mayor Ed Holder said the mayor can't speak publicly about an ongoing bylaw investigation.

Meanwhile, Martin is asking other faith leaders whose properties are set to serve as polling stations to follow his lead and reject polling stations on their property.

"I would call upon them to close their doors and say this won't happen in our church," said Martin. 

If other places of worship do follow suit, it could pose a problem for the city. There are currently 36 polling locations planned for churches and other locations owned by faith groups. Some voter cards with addresses of polling locations printed on them have already been mailed out.

A city spokesperson said it's their hope organizations that have entered contracts with the city for voting locations will honour their leases.

"In the event that locations become unavailable, we would work to consolidate voting locations and to communicate with people who are impacted by any changes directly," said the city spokesperson in a statement.

Faith groups to meet

Rev. Kevin George of St Aidan's Anglican Church on Oxford Street West has started a petition calling on the city to support First Baptist's hosting of Ark Aid and its services for those experiencing homelessness. As of 2 p.m. Monday, 765 people had signed it. 

Martin plans to join a meeting of city faith leaders on Tuesday (Sept. 27) at First St. Andrew's United Church on Queens Avenue to discuss their options. 


Andrew Lupton is a B.C.-born journalist, father of two and a north London resident with a passion for politics, photography and baseball.


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