From 2013: A City's Shame

The following was published in Hamilton Magazine in Fall 2013.

A City's Shame
WRITTEN BY Joey Coleman

Charlton Hall, a mental health treatment facility for eight teenage girls, wants to move a couple of blocks from their present location on Charlton Avenue in downtown's Durand neighbourhood to Augusta Street in the Corktown neighbourhood. The move has sparked one of the nastiest debates in recent memory at Hamilton City Hall. Even the never-ending stadium rhetoric didn't reach the boiling point of this debate.

Some Corktown residents have called the girls "undesirables" and city staff adopted similar language, arguing that the treatment program is an "undesirable use" of 121 Augusta. Proponents of Charlton Hall have pointed fingers, saying the Corktown neighbours are engaging in NIMBYism and the City is stigmatizing the girls. The low point? Ward 4 councillor Sam Merulla's comparison of Charlton Hall and its girls with a half-way house for pedophiles because the zonings are similar.

"I'm wondering," Merulla said at September's city council meeting, "if we would even be having this discussion if we were talking about pedophiles receiving treatment as opposed to eight mental health females receiving treatment."

Merulla stands by his comparison, arguing that allowing Charlton Hall an exemption to radial separation would open the floodgates to any mental health facility — including those for "sexual deviance." How did a routine variance request end in comparisons to pedophiles? Why did it have to go to the Ontario Municipal Board, at which tens of thousands of our tax dollars will be spent on lawyers? It comes down to radial separation and a 2001 bylaw forbidding the creation or expansion of any "residential care facility [RFC], emergency shelter, corrections residence or correctional facility" within 300 metres of the lot line of another. The bylaw originally included retirement homes and long-term care facilities. In 2007, council removed them from the restriction. Prior to 2001, the old city of Hamilton restricted them to within 180 metres of another. The City has granted exemptions before, but not this time. Corktown residents didn't want Charlton Hall and their Ward 2 councillor Jason Farr stood behind them.

Charlton Hall is currently housed in two attached city-owned homes at 52-56 Charlton Avenue West. The facility was opened in 1961 by Big Sisters and has served as the anchor for thousands of recovering young women. Charlton Hall pays the City $1,300 per month, the same rate since 1979. Prior to that, rent was a nominal $1 per year. The rent increased because Charlton Hall began receiving stable provincial funding and the nominal rate was reflective of the Councils of the '50s and '60s — the City would provide and care for facilities used by social service agencies serving children and youth. In return, those agencies would provide higher quality services than the City could itself. The arrangement worked well for both parties until the mid-90s. When the City attempted to raise the rent in the '90s, Big Sisters successfully prevented the increase. Charlton Hall continued to operate, but without a lease. The City didn't evict the program and the status quo has prevailed ever since.

The end of the '90s brought a big change — Hamilton and its suburban municipalities were merged into the "New City of Hamilton." The amalgamated Hamilton is less interested in being landlord to non-city social services and has been divesting itself of non-core real estate.

The past decade brought significant organizational changes to Charlton Hall. Big Sisters merged with Big Brothers in 2003 and Charlton Hall became independent. In June 2011, Charlton Hall merged with another youth serving agency — Lynwood Hall.

The condition of Charlton Hall's current home continued to deteriorate. The City declared the property surplus and wanted Charlton Hall to move so they could sell the property. The merger with Lynwood Hall provided what Executive Director Alex Thomson calls a "win-win" opportunity. Lynwood owns 121 Augusta Street in Corktown and had excess space. Charlton Hall moved its day programs the short couple of blocks — freeing space in the congested Charlton Hall — and started the process of applying to move the residence.

"We found a solution that costs the City nothing …we can afford to move to this location and provide better service …the City can then sell Charlton Hall," said Thomson.

On December 9, 2010, Charlton Hall submitted its first application. The usual followed — meetings, open houses, public consultations and notice of meetings to neighbours in Corktown. Charlton Hall was asking for a special exemption to radial separation. Thomson says there are two other RCFs in Corktown, with 12 beds total. Charlton Hall will make it 20 beds for the neighbourhood.

Ward 8 councillor Terry Whitehead, a proponent of Charlton Hall's move, notes when radial separation was passed in 2001, Corktown was specifically not included in the freeze on new RCFs. The 2001 report includes a map that highlights Durand to the west, and Stinson to the east of Corktown as saturated; Corktown is noted as not. "We looked and Corktown was not saturated; in fact, they had less facilities than most neighbourhoods," says Whitehead.

The councillor notes another flaw of the RCF bylaw — it allows for a single 24-bed facility, but not two five-bed facilities.

On January 17, Charlton Hall stood in front of the City' s planning committee. City staff were recommending the application be denied. Residents came to City Hall, a short walk from their homes and told councillors they did not want Charlton Hall in their neighbourhood. Some went so far as to call the girls " undesirables." Ward 2 councillor Jason Farr said he had heard clearly from the neighbourhood association — they did not want any more RCFs. The planning committee voted to deny Charlton Hall' s application.

"This is not NIMBYism," says Farr. "We need to spread these facilities across the city to ensure we don' t have an over-concentration."

He continued: "This is not about the girls and it's regrettable it has become about the girls, it's about enforcing the bylaw."

Farr doesn't feel Augusta is the right place for girls with mental illness, citing the number of police calls for missing girls as a concern.

From January 2009 to December 2011, police were at Charlton Hall a total of 170 times — 80 percent for missing girls, said Farr.

"How can you assure me if my child is going to be there, that they aren't going to run away?" asks Farr. " Especially with a pub a block this way, a bus terminal that way and still a bit of a crack problem a block that way."

Farr says Charlton was not forthcoming with information. "It's a residential street, police presence is an impact …Charlton Hall didn't include this in its information, I had to use Freedom of Information to get it," said Farr.

Thomson counters that Charlton Hall is required, by law, to report a girl missing if she does not return by curfew. He cites police records showing only five visits were for assault — of a staff member or another resident — and the remainder were mental health related.

"There's one eight-bed residence for adolescent females in all of Hamilton," says Thomson "We provide an essential service."

He argues that Charlton Hall needs to be near other facilities such as the Y, Farmers' Market, St. Joseph's Hospital and government agencies to be able to provide their program effectively.

"It's a natural location for us."

Thomson says of concerns about Charlton Hall's impact: "In Durand, we have 50 years of operation without one critical issue."

Carly McAskill, who lives next to Charlton Hall, says Charlton Hall was a regular presence at community clean-ups and other events.

"They are great neighbours, says McAskill. "I'll miss them."

Nicole Morris is one of those girls; she arrived at Charlton Hall three years ago. She suffered from self-esteem issues, an eating disorder, harmed herself numerous times and ended up at Charlton Hall after her family kicked her out.

Morris' childhood was challenging; she was bullied and never went out. "I actually jumped off the Escarpment," the now-confident 18-year-old admits frankly. "For three years, I've been fighting to stay healthy …Charlton Hall saved my life."

Morris now lives on her own at the YWCA and is about to move into her first apartment. She successfully completed her high school credits, and plans to enter a university nursing program next year. Listening to her, she is the proverbial girl next door.

However, the scars of her battle with illness are visible on her arms. She feels no shame and doesn't try to hide them.

"I've had people look at me in disgust, I've had people disparage me and call me worthless," Morris admits. " I'm not ashamed."

"I thought I'd be dead: I should've been dead, but I'm not, and that's got to mean something."

Morris says she immediately noticed something different about Charlton Hall. "They weren't judgmental. I felt loved," she says.

Her journey wasn't easy. For eight months, she was in and out of hospital as she tried to take her life numerous times. Each time Morris woke up, a member of the Charlton Hall staff was there. They didn't blame her, they offered support. Morris says she rejected them, but they never rejected her.

In April, upon turning 18, Morris had to leave Charlton Hall, but she's back often. Her caseworker still supports her, she's able to go to Charlton Hall for dinners and says it is still home to her.

Morris has been watching the debate about Charlton Hall' s future and says she is bothered by the stigma attached to mental health.

"I'm thoroughly disgusted," she says. "It disturbs me that people think because of our diagnosis that we're going to be all crazy. It bothers me we can't move because the neighbours don't want us there."

"It's really unfortunate," she says of the situation.

When the City rejected Charlton Hall's move in January, it began a fight that is now in front of the OMB.

Among the participants are Ontario's Human Rights Commissioner Barbara Hall, who sent letters to City Council warning them they were violating Ontario's Human Rights Code by discriminating against those with illness.

Hall understands municipal politics — she was Mayor of preamalgamation Toronto from 1994 to 1997.

"The Code is clear, it is illegal to make planning decisions based on people."

"This is not unique to Hamilton," says Hall. Stigma and stereotypes of people with low income and mental illness is common. "It's one of the reasons for the Human Rights Code."

"We offer to meet and work with municipalities," Hall says of her letter. " A number of municipalities have taken us up on this." Hamilton did not.

"Mental health is tough enough," says Hall, calling the radial separation and Council's decision "intentionally discriminatory."

"We want them [the girls] to be able to focus on getting healthy, to contribute, and to not have to worry about where they live …to have the same rights as you and I."

Following the planning committee's rejection of Charlton Hall's move, both sides — Charlton Hall and the City — entered into a conciliatory process to try finding a suitable location. They could not.

"We tried to find an alternative property," says Thomson. "Due to radial separation there was only one place on York Blvd."

"It cost $1.2 million to purchase, we'd have to find a way to get leaseholders to vacate and then find funds to renovate," he says. "We own the building on Augusta, we have the funds to renovate it." "We're a charity, we have to be efficient with our funds and this wasn't affordable."

No agreement was reached.

September's council meeting rolled around and the stage was set for a fight at the OMB over radial separation.

The City, however, had a surprise up its sleeve.

At the last minute, just as the application was heading to the OMB, they found a new argument in zoning — hoping to avoid a potential OMB ruling against radial separation.

Staff claimed they discovered that Charlton Hall operated day programs at 121 Augusta and this made it an institutional use similar to a hospital — not a residential care facility. City staff adopted similar language to the residents, calling the relocation "undesirable institutional use" of the property.

This newfound "discovery" was quickly challenged by Ward 9 councillor Brad Clark, who noted their own report at January's planning committee noted the day programs. They knew about it all along. The debate became heated, Merulla's comparison to zoning for pedophiles being the low point.

After more than an hour, Council voted, with all 16 members present; only four voted to allow the facility to move: Clark and Whitehead were joined by Ward 14 councillor Rob Pasuta and Ward 10 councillor Maria Pearson. Every other member of Council stood up and voted against the move.

The case was off to the OMB. A hearing was held less than three weeks later. On October 16, the City, Charlton Hall and the Ontario Human Rights Commission made their pre-hearing arguments in front of OMB vice-chair Jan Seaborn.

It quickly became apparent the challenge of the City's position and its opposition to any OHRC involvement. City lawyer Michael Minkowsky argued that radial separation should be not considered by the OMB — the City had rejected on zoning only.

He then argued the OHRC had no jurisdiction to stand in front of the OMB. Despite the clear frustration of vice-chair Seaborn, he attempted to argue she should overthrow Supreme Court of Canada legal precedent recognizing the OHRC's standing in similar cases.

The City lost both arguments.

Vice-chair Seaborn granted the OHRC standing and left the radial separation bylaw as an issue to be considered.

The full OMB hearing is set for late March 2013 and a decision could be forthcoming as early as late April.

In the meantime, city council voted to spend $250,000 in emergency repairs on the current Charlton Hall location at 52-56 Charlton, just to keep it to minimal living standards.

Until the OMB decision, Charlton Hall is in limbo.

"If we win at OMB, we will move," says Thomson. "The challenge will be restoring our relationship with Council and the community.

And if they lose?

"No matter where we go in the city, the 300-metre institutional bylaw will be in effect and we start again."

Which brings us back to the original question: How did it come to this? A bad bylaw that took a sledgehammer approach to a complex problem, a small group of residents with an uncompromising NIMBY attitude, a rookie councillor who carried their torch and a Council unwilling to do the right thing.

Perhaps if more of the girls at Charlton Hall grow up to become our civic leaders, we'd become a more compassionate, more caring city.

Until then, we'll have to rely upon the Ontario Municipal Board to ensure Hamilton truly becomes The Best Place to Raise a Child, even for the children who might need a little extra help and compassion along the way.