A 240-person “last-resort” shelter operating out of a Downtown Eastside church is permanently closing and looking for new management after being criticized amid safety concerns.
First United Church Mission has provided a low-barrier shelter for the past four years as part of its outreach program at 320 East Hastings St.
Vancouver-Burrard Presbytery — the church’s oversight committee — said they felt compelled to close the shelter after pressure to conform to operational standards from BC Housing and the City of Vancouver.
“The plan is to phase out the shelter over the next three months,” said chairperson Dal McCrindle. “The rest of the programs that First United maintains will continue to operate well into the future.”
In response to the decision, executive minister Rev. Ric Matthews resigned along with two members of his staff — Rev. Sandra Severs, deputy executive minister and Gillian Rhodes, director of operations — citing a difference of opinion from the church’s oversight board on the best use of the property.
Kerry Jang, a Vancouver city councillor, said other buildings will open up to handle the misplaced homeless in the short-term but the city remains committed to developing its 14 single-resident-occupancy (SRO) sites.
“There will always be a need for some shelter in the city of Vancouver, but what we’re doing is matching need to permanent housing.”
The difficulties arose, said Jang, when the church began ignoring occupancy levels and operating as a sanctuary rather than as a shelter for the homeless.
“The safety of anybody using a facility is paramount,” said Jang, defending the city’s strict enforcement of the fire code.
Matthews said he believes the church has a responsibility to house anyone in need and believes the intense governmental scrutiny began after several sexual assaults were reported at the shelter.
Although he is sad to leave, Matthews and his colleagues now hope to engage Vancouver Coastal Health to create viable housing options for the “most troubled and troublesome” in the community, a demographic that Matthews believes is poorly serviced.
“We’re not looking to provide a facility where these people nest and stay for the rest of their lives,” Matthews said.
“Barring people from the Downtown Eastside … simply severs them from any relationships that they have, and I don’t see how that helps them, society or the taxpayer.”