First United Church set to phase out shelter services for homeless in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

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      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.



      Rick in Richmond

      Dec 21, 2011 at 4:33pm

      Whatever replaces the First United shelter should be a mile -- or more -- away from Hastings and Main.

      A lot of the chaos in that church is because of its location. Drug dealers and pimps patrol those blocks. Their victims keep coming back. The people who run that shelter are dedicated Christians. They believe in their mission.

      But First United struggles to keep control over clients who find it incredibly easy to get drunk, or stoned, or injected or whatever literally a few feet away. It's crazy.

      A shelter should be a shelter. It shouldn't be in the middle of the craziness. It should help people get out of the madness -- not constantly return them to it.

      The replacement shelter needs to be removed from the turmoil and danger, and put in a place where people will actually feel -- and be -- safe.

      Only the ghettoizers and the drug dealers will oppose such a move. For those who really do need a safe place for the night, lets make it really safe. It sure as blazes isnt safe now, no matter how hard First United has tried.

      Vick in Vichmond

      Dec 21, 2011 at 5:31pm

      The problem, Rick, is where would this shelter go? How about on your block in Richmond. No? Don't like that idea?

      Here is where the problem lies. No one wants these shelters in their backyard.

      There were shelters in South False Creek that were away from all the chaos of the DTES, but residents freaked out enough to have it closed.

      Quite the situation. If only the government would re-open Riverview.


      Dec 21, 2011 at 8:24pm

      I hear what Rick in Richmond is saying, and in many ways, it makes a lot of sense.

      At the same time, the most difficult people to reach need to be met where they are right now.

      We cannot expect a 26-year-old raging heroin addict covered in sores who has been on the streets since she was 11 (who is a real person, by the way, I'm not making up a random sympathetic figure, she is kind and sweet and beautiful and totally incapable of leaving the downtown eastside) to come out to Richmond, or Surrey, or wherever else, simply to find a place to sleep. She just can't. It's too terrifying and difficult.

      If there's any chance that she will ever get out of the DTES alive, she's going to have to work toward doing so in very tiny baby steps. It starts with visiting a place like First United Church, where a host will smile and say hi to her when she walks in the door. Where a community worker will introduce himself and offer her a clean pair of socks at a foot care program. Where a receptionist will hand her some clean syringes.

      She'll learn that there are people that actually do legitimately accept her for who she is right now in this very moment, and maybe after awhile, she'll find the courage to pick herself up and get out of the place she's most comfortable in.

      Rick in Richmond

      Dec 21, 2011 at 11:04pm

      Vick and Kay are right on both counts. The homeless come to the DTES -- in great numbers -- from across Metro. Therefore every city in Metro has to shoulder part of the obligation -- including Richmond.

      Closing Riverview was a terrible mistake. People were booted with nowhere to go, with no followup, with no consequence except the worst.

      The most disordered people in the DTES and at 1st U are totally incapable of managing their own affairs. They can't handle money or meds or the chaos on the streets. They are swept into the madness. It helps no one to leave them stranded. Its a false compassion. Its why we cannot allow the DTES to become a ghetto for the most disturbed people in the city.

      Section 22 of the the B.C. Mental Health Act provides for apprehension if a person "is acting in a manner likely to endanger that person's own safety..."

      It is false and worthless compassion to allow people whose lives are completely confused & at risk & addicted to just wander the street. Any streets. Esp in the DTES.

      The word 'shelter' has to mean more than a bench in a church. It needs to mean real safety, real refuge, and a good distance from ground zero. For the young woman described, the DTES is the worst possible place to be.

      Second Nation

      Dec 23, 2011 at 6:33am

      How many times to we need to hear the same message: we don't have a comprehensive strategy for dealing with this problem?

      Closing Riverview was a mistake. Reopen it and more like it.