Just days before Christmas, the embattled minister of a Vancouver church that provides shelter to the most vulnerable residents of a poor neighbourhood has stepped down, acknowledging his vision of offering a haven for anyone who needed it clashed with official safety requirements.
And, in keeping with the season, he wondered if such requirements would have prevented shelter being given to a homeless couple on a night very long ago.
"In a world where litigation and liabilities are very real issues, the challenge that the church faces is the same challenge that any faith institution today would face – which is, quite literally, could any faith institution today house Mary and Joseph," Rev. Ric Matthews said Wednesday at Vancouver's First United.
"The risks of putting that couple in your stable are just enormous."
Mr. Matthews's critics say he refused to accept conditions that come with provincial government money. The clash at First United highlights Vancouver's long-running homelessness problems and the broader issue of serving people who may be both homeless and mentally ill.
That particular group cycles through jails and emergency rooms across the country and is the focus of At Home/Chez Soi, a four-year, national project that has housed hundreds of people in five cities, including Vancouver, through a Housing First approach since its launch in 2009. But there aren't enough spots in the federally funded program for the estimated 150,000 to 300,000 homeless people across the country who rely on the patchwork of shelters and services like those provided by First United.
Mr. Matthews insists he has an obligation to welcome those at the margins of society, even if those people are at times belligerent or even when the church has reached its official capacity. But church officials – who for months had been pressing Mr. Matthews to bring operations in line with legal requirements – say there was an unbridgeable divide between his approach and the church's liability and safety concerns.
"We see the limitations under which we're working, and Rick and his colleagues see the vision of what they want to be able to do and the two don't equate," Dal McCrindle, chair of the Vancouver-Burrard Presbytery to which First United belongs, told reporters at a news conference.
Long-standing disagreements came to a head earlier this month, when the city enforced a 240-person occupancy limit and Mr. Matthews held a press conference to decry having to turn people away. Provincial funding for current operations is slated to end by March 31, 2012. The province had planned to fund the facility until March, 2013, but decided to phase it out earlier because of operational issues and because replacement facilities were coming on line.
The city hopes to find homes for everybody that now relies on the shelter.
Mr. Matthews, executive minister of First United, resigned along with deputy executive minister Sandra Severs and Gillian Rhodes, director of operations. Their resignations capped months of discussions around safety and overcrowding at First United, which has a history of mission work that dates back to its founding in 1885. Over the past decade, the church focused increasingly on helping the homeless in the neighbourhood, in part by letting people come inside out of the cold during daylight hours. That role was formalized in 2008, when then-incoming mayor Gregor Robertson asked Mr. Matthews if the church would allow people to stay overnight.
From the outset, the church was packed, routinely sheltering more than its officially sanctioned allotment of 200 people a night. And from the outset, there were complaints: people wandered in and out with no accountability; it wasn't safe. Those rumblings erupted to a roar last year, when police confirmed there had been several sexual assaults at the church.
The city launched other low-barrier shelters – facilities that provided storage for belongings, including shopping carts, to accommodate those who may not otherwise come inside – but First United was responsible for the most headaches for officials.
There were nearly 1,000 police calls to First United last year and by early December of 2011, officers had logged 737 calls to the site, according to the Vancouver Police Department, with the "overwhelming majority" involving public disorder such as fights or people who were drunk.
Judy Graves, the city's veteran housing co-ordinator, said this week she supports the province in its drive to bring First United in line with other shelters that adhere to standard regulations, including requirements for people to give their name on being admitted.
"I am so onside with [B.C. Housing Minister]Rich Coleman," Ms. Graves said. "Either you use the building and bring in experienced shelter providers or you wind it down and close it."
Mr. Matthews, meanwhile, said he hopes to find another place or agency that will support his vision of a supportive community for those who need it most.