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Church warned months ago about shelter limits, documents show

The front doors to First United Church shelter in Vancouver's downtown Eastside on December 6, 2011.

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

The Downtown Eastside shelter that created a small firestorm of controversy when it claimed earlier this month it was being forced to turn homeless people away because of an unexpected city crackdown had been warned for three months to develop a plan to deal with its overcrowding.

As well, according to an internal e-mail from a First United Church board member sent out to others on the board after the Dec. 1 incident, the minister at First United put the church and the United Church at risk of losing its fire insurance and being held legally liable in case of an accident.

The e-mail from board member David Ewart said that Rev. Ric Matthews and an assistant "have both known for two months – since early September – that the City was not going to allow them to continue to operate in violation of the fire safety code. The City stressed the importance of putting a plan in place BEFORE the first cold weather started and offered suggestions as to how to bring First's occupancy within safe limits."

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Contacted by phone, Mr. Ewart, who is the representative of the United Church's Vancouver-Burrard Presbytery on the First United oversight board, said he couldn't say any more because there are ongoing "conversations" between the board, the presbytery executive and church staff, "and they are not resolved."

Dal McCrindle, the chair of the presbytery executive, also said he couldn't comment on what actions the United Church might be taking with respect to First United because those are the subject of meetings this week and next.

The presbytery executive did pass a motion Nov. 29, the night before the church turned away 27 people, ordering it to comply with fire-safety regulations.

The executive decision was spurred in part by legal and insurance concerns, as well as the major concern about people's lives being endangered.

It noted in its motion that lawyers had advised that "allowing this limit to be exceeded does 'open the directors to potential claim of negligence'" and that also "jeopardizes the terms of First United's fire insurance and directors insurance."

On Dec. 1, First United issued a news release claiming it had had to turn people away the night before because of the city's decision to enforce the occupancy limit of 240. That prompted media coverage all day about the lack of shelter spaces and the dispute between the city and the province over how many winter-shelter beds the province should fund.

The city crackdown was viewed with suspicion by shelter users and some staff, while Housing Minister Rich Coleman said he hoped it wasn't just the city "playing politics."

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Mr. Matthews has always said he views the church as a refuge, not a shelter, and that it's his responsibility to take in anyone from the streets who is in need.

Mr. Ewart's e-mail makes it clear that there had been a tussle going on for months about getting First United to accept the fact that it couldn't admit more than 240 people a night.

Mr. Ewart lays the blame for the debacle at the door of Mr. Matthews.

"Frankly it is my judgment that Ric's actions on November 30 were shameful and reckless and potentially dangerous," wrote Mr. Ewart, who stressed he was writing a personal opinion. "He had sat for 2 months on the knowledge that the City would take whatever steps were necessary to ensure that First would not put lives at risk by overcrowding, and then gave the community 2 hours to find an alternative."

Mr. Matthews did not return calls from The Globe.

First United was the first of a new style of winter shelter that Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson opened soon after he was elected in 2008.

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Until then, the province funded a set number of year-round shelter beds and opened up "extreme weather" shelter beds, run by volunteers in churches and other temporary spaces, during the winter when temperatures or rainfall exceeded a set limit.

The mayor's HEAT shelters, as they were called, were open 24 hours and were specifically run as low-barrier refuges, allowing people to bring in their pets and their shopping carts, as well as tolerating alcohol and drug use.

First United housed more than 300 people some nights when it first started. There are still two other HEAT shelters in year-round operation, as well as four more that Mr. Coleman opened for the winter in recent weeks.

However, First United has run into controversy over the past year. Police reported in March that half a dozen sexual assaults had taken place at the shelter.

Church staff, police, the city, fire officials, and BC Housing staff have been meeting weekly since August to work out ways for the church shelter to operate with better rules.

B.C. Housing had originally agreed to fund First United until March 31, 2013. That has now changed and funding will end March 31, 2012, instead.

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