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Pastors quit First United Church shelter

City says about 40 people who sleep at First United have housing elsewhere

Three executives from the First United Church shelter left their posts Wednesday to form a new mission.

Their departure comes as First United began strict adherence to provincial and civic shelter, building safety and police regulations Wednesday night.

"There are actual people that as of mid-day today are not going to be allowed back into the building," said Rev. Ric Matthews, the executive minister and one of three departing staff. "And they, more than likely, are not going to be allowed in anywhere else."

Matthews was joined in his departure by Rev. Sandra Severs, deputy executive minister, and Gillian Rhodes, director of operations. All are receiving severance packages.

Faced with increased pressure from its funding agency B.C. Housing to meet its shelter regulations, from the city to meet occupancy limits and from the Vancouver Police Department to deny entry to anyone it considers a threat, the Vancouver-Burrard Presbytery of the United Church decided First United must comply with civic and provincial authorities.

The more than 200 people who sleep on the pews and on bunk beds in First United had yet to be told of the changes when they were announced Wednesday morning. But as of Wednesday night, they were required for the first time to complete a formal intake as clients and state their age, name and whether they had another home.

The shelter spots at the corner of East Hastings and Gore are to be gradually decreased until money from B.C. Housing runs out at the end of March.

Staff from the province, city and First United will help women find shelter first. Staff will work with each individual.

Dal McCrindle, chairman of the Vancouver-Burrard Presbytery, said extended funding from B.C. Housing wouldn't convince First United to continue providing overnight shelter. "The building is, in the large scheme, not really suitable for that. It's actually a dangerous place to have people residing overnight," he said.

Provincial and city staff estimate that about 40 of the people who sleep at First United have housing elsewhere. Some prefer sleeping at First United because their home buildings are infected with vermin, they can't find lodging for couples or they are anxious about being alone at night, Matthews said.

Matthews didn't know what form his and his colleagues' new mission would take. They don't intend to establish a new society but aim to address what they consider unmet social and mental health needs. They hope to have provincial, private donor and foundation funding.

The 126-year-old church mission started letting people sleep in its space overnight around the clock three years ago at the request of Mayor Gregor Robertson, Matthews said.

He expects advocacy, storage, clothing provision, grief and addictions groups and dentistry services will continue at the church.

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Twitter: @Cheryl_Rossi