Ruth and Naomi’s Mission in Chilliwack has been ordered to pay a past client $5,000 for violating his human rights.
A series of interactions led to Sean Morriss, 76, being permanently banned from staying at their shelter on Yale Road, known as The Portal.
The order was handed out by the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal on Feb. 2, and dates back to September 2019. That’s when the main Ruth and Naomi’s (RAN) building on Princess Avenue began playing Christian music, and displaying Christian messages on a large screen. Portal residents are given meals and shower access at the main building. Morriss was also a volunteer in the shower area, spending two hours there in the mornings helping with set up.
The music and the screen are both noticeable in the waiting area for the shower, and Morriss became upset about the issue. In a complaint to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, he said his concerns weren’t accommodated, and that staff at the mission refused to help him.
He had asked if they could turn both off while he was waiting. Their suggestions included showering at the Salvation Army, wearing earplugs, or waiting outside in a covered area.
Morriss told the tribunal that he was also told, “if you don’t like it, then leave.”
(For full decision scroll to the bottom of this story.)
He did leave the shower area a few times in distress, and stopped showering and eating there completely. Instead, he began giving himself sponge baths at The Portal.
Then on Dec. 3, 2019, he filed a human rights complaint alleging that RAN and a number of its employees had discriminated against him based on religion in violation of section 8 of the Human Rights Code.
And while that original complaint was dismissed by the tribunal on Feb. 2, what transpired following that complaint was not.
On Dec. 12, 2019, Morriss was eating dinner at The Portal when another resident (not identified in the tribunal) there attacked him. A short fight ensued and was partially caught on film, lasting about seven seconds. Both men were evicted that day, for 30 days.
A month later, he began requesting permission to stay at The Portal again. Within days, it became known among staff that Morriss was actually permanently banned from staying at The Portal, a consequence that is reserved for very serious issues. Several staff members testified during the hearing, and noted that the altercation that Morriss was involved in would not qualify as serious. However Corey Buettner, who was at the time director of community services for RAN was on medical leave during the tribunal and for that reason did not testify.
“This was nobody’s fault but has left significant gaps in the evidence as it relates to critical decisions that Mr. Buettner made,” Devyn Cousineau, tribunal member said in the finding.
Evidence found that Morriss was actually permanently banned because of his initial complaint to the Human Rights Tribunal.
Cousineau was able to ascertain that Morriss’s permanent ban caused “injury to his dignity, feelings, and self‐respect.” Cousineau also found that it went against RAN’s own mission.
“By their very nature, RAN’s services are intended to mitigate the serious harms of poverty,” the finding states. “It is one of three organizations in Chilliwack providing shelter and temporary housing to people in need and its services provide the basic necessities of life, including shelter, food, and hygiene facilities like washrooms and showers.”
The Human Rights Code actually serves to protect people who file complaints.
“Service providers, employers, and landlords are required by the Code to put aside their personal feelings about a complaint and ensure that they are providing the safe conditions required for such a complaint to come forward,” Cousineau said. “This obligation is essential to the work of creating a more equitable society. In this case, I am satisfied that RAN fell short of this obligation to Mr. Morriss and denied him services because he filed a human rights complaint against the organization and a number of specific individuals. This was a violation of section 43.”
While Morriss has since found affordable housing for himself, Cousineau said RAN’s decision to ban him put him in an even more vulnerable position.
“Mr. Morriss was vulnerable at this time. He was 76 years old with medical conditions. Anyone who is underhoused is made vulnerable by society’s failure to care for them, and that was true of Mr. Morriss as well. As I have said, he had limited options available to him.”
The organization was given three months to pay Morriss.
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