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Church reborn as shelter committed to its flock

Drew Pinelli (L) and Juno McGyver (R) laugh during a "commitment ceremony" at First United Church in Vancouver. The United Church sanctuary, where the pews have been replaced by bunk beds. The gym serves as a dining room, where upwards of 150 people each night eat in two and sometimes three shifts.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

As a church, First United has existed for more than a century.

As a homeless shelter, its history dates back to December, 2008, when the Downtown Eastside church - which was already allowing people to sleep on its pews in daylight hours during cold snaps - agreed to open its doors seven nights a week.

Since then, up to 250 people have slept each night in the church, which was the first shelter announced by then newly minted Mayor Gregor Robertson's Homeless Emergency Action Team.

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The biggest and busiest of the city's HEAT shelters, First United was largely overlooked in the recent furor over the fate of several seasonal shelters, which closed April 30 despite the protests of some advocacy groups. Provincial funding for First United is scheduled to wind up in 2013 as new social-housing projects come on stream. The church, meanwhile, has decided to make its new mandate its mission - and wants to replace its rundown church with a new building designed to provide shelter and services it is now delivering.

The shift to full-time shelter has not been without controversy. This spring, a coalition of women's groups rang the alarm over a string of sexual assaults at First United, saying the incidents highlighted unsafe conditions at the church. The furor increased when First United minister Rev. Ric Matthews was quoted as saying that "some women put themselves at risk because of the way they dress or undress or move around the building."

That comment put Mr. Matthews - who says he was trying to illustrate some of the challenges of a shelter that routinely accepts people who have been banned or ejected from other facilities - in the hot seat and galvanized the coalition. On March 22, protesters marched to BC Housing headquarters. The same day, Atira Women's Resource Society announced a new drop-in space for women that will complement other women-only facilities in the neighbourhood.

The new drop-in, and changes at First United - including heightened supervision - tempered some concerns, although some women's groups still want a women-run, 24-hour shelter. At First United, meanwhile, the throngs keep coming.

One recent night, a woman in her 20s named Angeline hailed nearly everyone she saw by name. She came to the Downtown Eastside because friends and relatives were already here. Her father died years ago about a block away, she said, stabbed on the sidewalk for a five-dollar bill he was holding in his hand when he hit the pavement.

Angeline said she comes to First United because she feels more welcome here than at other facilities.

Mr. Matthews hears that a lot.

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The church doesn't wear its faith on its sleeve - its last regular Sunday morning service was in 2007 - but Mr. Matthews emphasizes that First United is still a church, one building an "intentional community" in the inner city.

Provincial funding for First United - $142,000 a month - is scheduled to end in 2013, when several new housing projects are expected to come on stream. The church has its own ideas, including raising funds for a $31.5-million building that would include shelter space, apartments and a place for worship. The existing 1965 building is ill-equipped for its current flock. The kitchen is old and cramped. The layout is awkward. Bathrooms are taxed.

Some people stay for a night; others have been coming for years. Over the course of a few hours, one man requires an ambulance after he wanders in with a bleeding scalp. Another man vomits in the lobby. Another who is drunk and angry is encouraged to walk around the block to cool off. When he starts to leave without his shoes, a staffer runs after him, shoes in hand.

The following morning, Mr. Matthews presides over a "commitment ceremony" for Drew and Juno, two women in their 20s who've known each other since their early teens, share a tumultuous background and now, it seems, a yearning for something conventional.

He starts by explaining that what he's about to perform is not a legal wedding. He says that while this may seem a fun and frivolous thing to do, it's also profound. He doesn't bat an eye when a guitar-playing friend drops the f-word into the middle of the processional.

Afterward, Mr. Matthews says there may have been some reasons not to perform such a ceremony, including lack of official documentation, but there were more pastoral reasons to make it happen.

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That principle-driven approach is in keeping with the history of the church, which was founded in 1885 and has been involved in social outreach for nearly as long. Along with its role as the city's busiest shelter, First United is currently home to Rodney Watson, a U.S. Army deserter who has lived with his wife and son at the church since October, 2009.

Mr. Matthews says he is not disheartened by a church history that includes congregations dwindling from the hundreds to the dozens and, finally, before that last official service, to about 15.

It's simple, really, he explains. Something old dies and a new thing is born.

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