First United Church is set to close its doors at the end of March 2012 to the over 200 homeless people that use the space as an overnight refuge.
The announcement was made today, as the Vancouver-Burrard Presbytery said it will be working with an oversight board to operate the facility as it phases out the shelter portion of its services. The church and the ministers operating First United say a disagreement over how the shelter should be run has led to a “separating of the ways”.
Reverends Ric Matthews and Sandra Severs and director of operations Gillian Rhodes say they have resigned from running the facility, and plan to begin conversations with local and provincial officials about meeting the needs of those who “don’t fit into the formal shelter structures”.
At a press conference today (December 21) at the East Hastings church, Matthews told reporters that while there have been what he called “amazing efforts” to address the need for housing by provincial and municipal governments, he said there remain serious challenges around finding appropriate housing for some homeless.
“There are folk who, for various reasons, find themselves not having their housing needs met,” he said.
“We have people who are falling through the cracks, we have people who are cycling through the emergency rooms and through the prisons, and we don’t have a comprehensive strategy for how we deal with those folk.”
Provincial funding for the low-barrier shelter is set to run out at the end of March 2012. Dal McCrindle, the chairperson of the Vancouver-Burrard Presbytery, said if the province does renew funding for the shelter beyond March, the church would seek to find another space to house the homeless. He described the current building as a dangerous place to have people staying overnight, and said the church does not view it as a suitable space for a shelter.
“We’d be doing whatever we could to find some alternate place for a shelter to be in operation,” he said.
The church, which has been housing over 200 people a night since the shelter portion of the facility opened in 2008, will keep serving meals over the next three months, and will likely continue to provide meals, a daytime refuge and other services for homeless beyond the end of March.
During the next three months, the shelter will switch to a formal intake system, which includes asking each individual their name, age and why they’re at the shelter. Matthews said the church has so far avoided such a system, as he argued it can act as a deterrent to some homeless seeking shelter.
McCrindle said the number of beds will gradually be phased out between now and the end of March, as staff help to find patrons alternate housing.
He noted the church “deeply values” the work of Matthews and his colleagues in providing shelter and services for Downtown Eastside residents.
“It’s just come to the point where the institution itself feels it must abide by the regulations and policies set down for operating a shelter, and that was where we’ve come to an impasse," he said. "We see these are the limitations under which we’re working, and Ric and his colleagues see a division in what they want to be able to do, and the two don’t equate."
The city enforced the 240-person occupancy limit at the facility earlier this month, which led to the shelter turning away 27 people.
Matthews noted that during the Olympics, the church sometimes housed over 300 people.
“The coldest winter night during the Olympics we were up to about 325,” he said. “Ironically, at that time we had fire officials walking through the building.”
Matthews said he, Severs and Rhodes will be attempting to meet with Vancouver Coastal Health, and with social planning officials at the municipal and provincial levels, to determine whether there is a possibility for a partnership to address the needs of those who fall outside the formal standards for homeless shelters.
“We hope that we can get that conversation happening very quickly,” he said. “Our hope is that we will find a facility...(which) we can somehow use to go somewhere towards meeting that need.”
The Downtown Eastside shelter has been at the centre of some controversy over the last year. Police announced in February 2011 that they had investigated reports of six alleged sexual assaults at the facility. This fall, the shelter came under fire for hiring a former sex offender as a night shift supervisor.
The First United church has been located at its East Hastings site for 125 years.