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Downtown Eastside shelter warns it may have to cut staff

The head of a Downtown Eastside church that serves as one of the busiest homeless shelters in the city says it has drained its financial reserves to pay for shelter staff and services and will have to let employees go unless it gets more funding from the province.

"We are going to have to lay off staff," First United minister Ric Matthews said on Thursday, adding that the church had been tapping its own funds to the tune of about $100,000 a month to boost staff levels to roughly double that covered by provincial funds.

Provincial Housing Minister Rich Coleman was traveling on Thursday and not immediately available for comment.

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The potential layoffs are part of a behind-the-scenes wrangle over money and policies at First United, which has provided round-the-clock shelter since late 2008, when it was opened under then-new mayor Gregor Robertson's Homeless Emergency Action Team.

Since then, the church – which had for years allowed homeless people to sleep on its pews during daylight hours – has been jammed to the rafters, routinely sleeping more than 250 people a night and operating with a "no-barrier" approach that means men and women who have been barred from other city shelters can find a space in the church.

Earlier this year, conditions at First United came into the spotlight after a string of sexual assaults at the facility, which resulted in calls for additional women-only shelters in the Downtown Eastside and beefed-up staffing and safety measures at the church.

Six assaults were reported at the facility between October of 2010 and last February. Three of the assaults resulted in charges, which are now before the courts.

The province, through BC Housing, provides about $140,000 a month to First United for shelter operations, based on an agreement that provides $24-a-night per person.

That's lower than the amount the province directs to some other city shelters, including temporary cold-weather facilities that have operated in the past three winters with per-person funding of about $62 a night.

Current funding from the province allows for three round-the-clock "host" positions and three community workers, Mr. Matthews said.

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Since about last November, First United has been operating with seven hosts and six community workers, pushing per-person shelter costs up to about $55 a night, Mr. Matthews said.

The province, meanwhile, has been working with the city to build social housing projects on city-owned sites and emphasizing that it costs roughly twice as much to run temporary shelters as it does to operate supportive housing projects.

But many involved in the housing and mental-health sectors point to full shelters as evidence that they are still required and can be a stepping stone to getting off the street.

The uncertainty around First United comes as the city has unveiled a long-term housing plan that features shelters as the first link in a comprehensive housing strategy.

"First United has done a great job working with the hardest-to-house," said Vancouver Councillor Kerry Jang. "The fact that it is so full points to the fact that the need is really there."

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About the Author
National correspondent

Based in Vancouver, Wendy Stueck has covered technology and business and now reports on British Columbia issues including natural resources, aboriginal issues and urban affairs. More

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