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Darlene and Rob who call themselves "the crazy cousins" outside First United Church in Vancouver's downtown Eastside December 6, 2011. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Darlene and Rob who call themselves "the crazy cousins" outside First United Church in Vancouver's downtown Eastside December 6, 2011. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

SHELTER

A night at Downtown Eastside's 'ghetto mansion' Add to ...

It’s been called the living room of the Downtown Eastside.

It’s also been called a zoo, a ‘ghetto mansion’ and, most often, simply First United, a name as well-known to city police and emergency room doctors as to the hundreds of people who troop through its doors.

Recently, it’s been depicted as a place that has gone off the rails, where an accept-all-comers philosophy has resulted in problems including sexual assaults and a blind eye turned to drugs and booze. Tensions boiled over this month, with the fire department enforcing occupancy restrictions and First United saying it had to turn people away as a result. Then, B.C. Housing Minister Rich Coleman said the shelter would be phased out in 2012, rather than a previously planned 2013, because of safety issues and other concerns, including people sleeping at the shelter when they had housing elsewhere.

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There may be no typical night at First United, but a recent visit showed staff and clients adjusting to a more stringent regime:

8:20 p.m.

A man who is a regular becomes drunk and belligerent. Staff call police. Two officers arrive and speak soothingly to the man, who rolls off and under a lobby pew. The officers radio for assistance and eventually he is carried out, his feet dragging behind him. Police say they’ll take him to jail and keep an eye on him.

9 p.m.

Theresa, a volunteer, is cutting hair in the women’s area, a separate part of the church. A young woman comes in from the street and says she’d have to comb her tangled hair before it could be cut. Theresa sprays down the woman’s hair with water and begins teasing out the tangles. The woman closes her eyes.

“When my parents used to comb my hair, they would do that,” she says.

9:30 p.m.

One of the people around for an evening snack is Clyde, a member of the Gitxsan Nation. First United estimates that up to 40 per cent of its clientele is native.

A residential school survivor, Clyde wryly calls First United the “ghetto mansion.”

Asked where he lives, he says, “Here. Third mat on the left, in the gym.”

10:30 p.m.

From a bad-date sheet in the women’s area: “As the worker tried to exit the car, the suspect grabbed her by the hair and began beating and strangling her. In what the worker describes as a fight for her life, she eventually escaped.”

A staff member worries strict enforcement of occupancy limits means women will spend more time on the street and be more vulnerable to potential assaults. Occupancy limits were routinely exceeded during the Olympics last year, she maintains.

“When it was expedient to have homeless people off the street, then it was okay to have people sleeping in the hallways,” she says.

By midnight, the head count is over 200 people, under the limit of 240.

1:11 a.m.

The head count has dropped back to 196. People are sleeping in the men’s-only chapel, the women’s area, in the sanctuary and in the gym. The night is mild and staff don’t expect to hit capacity.

1:35 a.m.

Police swing by to pick up a man who’s wanted on a warrant. The drunken man who was escorted out earlier returns, giving a fist bump to the police officers as he passes. As someone who has a government-subsidized room nearby, he’s part of a group that has become a sticking point between the province and the shelter – with the province saying that up to 40 per cent of people staying at the shelter have government-funded beds elsewhere. The church, which maintains that number is inflated, says people come to socialize and be part of a community.

2:15 a.m.

The bars have closed and some other shelters have hit their cut-off time, so there’s a flurry of activity in the lobby. Staff lock the front doors to restrict access and track the names of people who go outside for a smoke.

“Remember how I told you about the 240?” Layton Peck, a manager at the shelter, says to a man who’s balking at being asked to check in and out. “Well, we’re getting close.”

2:35 a.m.

A fight breaks out in the sanctuary and staff run to break it up. A man’s been kicked in the head and is bleeding but his injuries aren’t severe.

In the lobby, a man is reading the last chapter of a mystery novel, which he says he’ll finish before grabbing a few hours of sleep.

By 5 a.m., the early risers will be heading out the door.

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