10/24/2012 09:24 EDT | Updated 12/24/2012 05:12 EST

"Undesirables" Face City Stigma

A residence for eight teenage girls with mental illnesses is caught in the middle of an upcoming fight at the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) between the City of Hamilton Ontario and the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC). And the OHRC deserves credit for stepping into the fray to protect the rights of the young ladies. Would any of this be happening if we were talking about a hospice for cancer patients? I rather doubt it.

The residence, Charlton Hall, was originally founded in 1919 by the Big Sister Association and is presently housed in a beautiful old house just west of Hamilton downtown. The young women it treats are struggling with a variety of problems such as eating disorders and self-harm. The building they are in is owned by the city and, according to Neil Everson, the city director of economic development, the building (pictured in the link) is "literally crumbling." Its commercial value is estimated at $450,000 but it requires $1.2 million in repairs.

Why the building was allowed to deteriorate to that extent by the city has never been explained. Had they maintained the building properly on an ongoing basis, it would not have reached that level of deterioration and the present crisis would have been avoided. Instead, the residence which recently amalgamated with another agency to form the Lynwood Charlton Centre, has to move and they had intended to move to an area near downtown Hamilton called Corktown that is undergoing gentrification. Again, I ask myself if a hospice would have been allowed to deteriorate to that extent.

The problem arose because of that planned move. The Corktown residents were not happy about having eight young women with problems in their midst. One, Dianne Smith, was quoted in the article linked above stating "I do not wish to have undesirables move back in. This has nothing to do with the good work that they're doing." Barry Bogusat, president of the Corktown neighbourhood association said in that same article "this is feeding a perception that it's an unsafe place to live. We're asking you today that you don't validate that ... we don't want them sleeping overnight in our neighbourhood."

And so city council voted 12-4 to keep the girls out invoking a bylaw that stipulates residential care facilities not be located within 300 metres of each other. But, to compensate, they offered to put up $200,000 towards the $1.2 million the existing building actually needs for repairs. The agency rejected the offer and is appealing the city decisions to the OMB.

That bylaw, according to the OHRC, is illegal. In a letter to the city, Barbara Hall, the commissioner said, "It is illegal to make planning decisions based on people, instead of on land use and other legitimate planning principles," Then, in an interview with the Hamilton Spectator, she said Hamilton, like many other municipalities with similar bylaws, is using zoning regulations to discriminate against residents with certain characteristics.

Earlier this month, the OHRC announced that they are asking the OMB to be allowed to intervene in the hearing and Barbara Hall was quoted saying "Often, in terms of housing, we see very negative, degrading, humiliating kinds of names and debates that occur around proposals for social housing, or housing for people with mental illness. People shouldn't have to experience that."

Needless to say, the city opposes this attempt and has said that the OHRC is overstepping its mandate.

But, from the letters to the Hamilton Spectator many do not agree with their elected city council. One letter writer suggested that the city's moral compass is absent. Another letter writer suggested that "Council should take a page from McGuinty's book (the provincial premier who just suspended the legislature and resigned) and "suspend" themselves, permanently, without pay."

The Hamilton Spectator ran an article earlier this month showcasing one of the graduates of Charlton Hall. The article opened with "Chelsea Rothwell is a university student, a painter, a volunteer, a world traveller and an award-winning peace activist. She's also a former resident of Charlton Hall." Ms. Rothwell is planning to do a masters degree at the University of Toronto and then a doctorate at Cornell. Of her experiences with Charlton Hall she said "It single-handedly altered the course of my entire life."

It is a shame that the young women in this residential treatment facility must be subjected to this debate as they likely have enough to do trying to get their lives in order. Kudos to the Ontario Human Rights Commission for stepping in. Meanwhile, a local media personality, Laura Babcock, has designed t-shirts reading "S O S" -- short for "Stomp Out Stigma" -- that are being sold to show support for Charlton Hall residents. "I didn't like the message council was sending to the girls and the people with mental illness in our community," Babcock said.