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Homeless people sleep in double-bunk beds in the former chapel of the First United Church on the Downtown eastside of Vancouver April 27, 2010.

Jeff Vinnick for The Globe and Mail/jeff vinnick The Globe and Mail

Vancouver's First United Church has crammed the homeless into its shelter for more than three years now – but on Wednesday night, at least two dozen people were turned away after the city cracked down on overcrowding.

The popular Downtown Eastside homeless shelter closed its doors to at least 27 people after the building's 240-person occupancy limit was enforced for the first time.

"Last night, there were at least 27 people – and probably many more than that – who were met face-to-face and were told that despite the fact we know about you, and care about you, and relate to you and understand that you have nowhere else to go, you cannot come into this building. You are out on the streets," said Ric Matthews, executive director of the First United Church.

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He said the number of occupants – once as many as 320 during the 2010 Olympics – was one of several "lines in the sand" between the shelter, city and fire and rescue services.

The shelter has consistently exceeded occupancy limits in the past with the full knowledge of the city. But, the City of Vancouver informed the church that it would begin enforcing occupancy limits on Wednesday night, according to a First United media release.

Vancouver Fire Chief John McKearney said the trigger for the order was a surge of people on Tuesday night, with the shelter reporting to the fire department that 280 people were in the shelter overnight.

Chief McKearney said he is concerned that people ended up being turned away, but said overcrowding endangers the safety of those in the shelter. "Where does it end?"

He pointed to the building's complex layout and lack of sprinkler system as additional safety hazards. He said that his office had no documented evidence that the shelter was operating over-capacity in the past.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson said the city is not prepared to accept future overcrowding. "We have to keep people safe in the buildings around the city that we are responsible for," he told reporters.

Jason Watt, a shift manager at First United, called Wednesday night "probably the worst shift I've ever had to work."

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"It was very emotional. I had to turn a lot of people away that I've build very strong relationships with over the past few years that I've worked here. I wasn't just turning away clients. I was turning away actual members of this community," he said.

Mr. Matthews said he recognized the need to account for regulatory liability, but called for a more integrated approach between the province and city to deal with homelessness.

"Our challenge . . . is while we hold occupant levels, we have to find a way for those people who we exclude to be in a safe and warm place. In the absence of that, we are irresponsible in simply expelling people into the streets."

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