12/21/2011 04:22 EST | Updated 02/20/2012 05:12 EST

Vancouver church divided over homeless shelter

A church that has served the Vancouver community for 125 years has announced it is dividing after a disagreement over how best to provide shelter for the city's homeless.

The First United Church in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside made headlines recently when it was forced to turn away 27 people in one night due to fire safety bylaws.

As a result of the ensuing political row, the province agreed to fund two more homeless shelters in the city. But now the Vancouver-Burrard Presbytery says the only way to meet the needs of the homeless is to break with the church mission itself.

Rev. Ric Matthews, the now former executive minister at First United Church, told CBC News the church had come under increasing pressure to conform to the formal best practice standards for shelters.

"The problem is that while that's totally appropriate and necessary, there are folk who get excluded by that process. By the very definition of the word, there are folk who are seen to be a threat to others and who can't be inside of that facility," he told Kathryn Gretsinger, guest host of CBC Radio One's The Early Edition.

"In fact as a society we haven't worked out how to deal with the folk who fall outside of those operating structures."

Matthews will join former deputy executive minister Rev. Sandra Severs and former director of operations Gillian Rhodes to establish a separate body addressing both the shelter and health needs of the excluded homeless.

"Many of the folk who are the most deeply troubled and therefore the most troublesome have issues that are not just related to finding housing for them. It's emotional problems," he said.

"So we would be trying to find a way to meet these folk, with their needs both for physical shelter but more importantly, for belonging and for having relationships in which they can meaningfully explore their lives."

Safety concerns

Dal McCrindle, the chair of the presbytery executive, said the split had arisen due to concerns for the safety and staff of the church, as well as the people seeking shelter.

"The building wasn't designed as a shelter. It's basically a church building and there's lots of places in there that's just not safe to have people in and we were very concerned about that," he said.

"The vision that Ric and the other executive staff had was broader than what the United Church could handle. They believe very much that that ministry needs to happen and we do believe that is valuable work but it couldn't happen under the auspices of the United Church."

First United Church will continue operating as a shelter until March 31, 2012.