First United Church

Affordable Housing: Vancouver Church preparing to redevelop

By Jen St. Denis, The Tyee, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

A church that has provided services to homeless and precariously housed people in the Downtown Eastside for over a century is preparing  to redevelop the property it owns at 320 E. Hastings Street. First United Community  Ministry plans to partner with Lu’ma Native Housing Society to build an  11-storey building with seven floors of housing and four floors for  First United’s social programs.

Shovels in the ground

“We’re really hoping we’ll have shovels in the ground next summer,” said Carmen Lansdowne, executive director for First United.

First United has been trying to redevelop  the building for the past 12 years, but Lansdowne said this time, she’s  confident the project will go ahead. 

In September, the regional  council for the United Church sold the property to First United for  $10, meaning the ministry can tap into the equity to help fund the new  building.

The municipal, provincial  and federal governments are also aligned on providing more funding for  affordable housing, Lansdowne said. 

Since 2007: Shelter and drop in space

First United hasn’t held church services at  its building at the corner of Gore and East Hastings streets since  2007, when the congregation had dwindled but the demand for social  services continued to grow.

Instead of filling a church every Sunday with worshippers, the church became a full-time shelter and drop-in space.

Helping people in poverty since 1892

The church also offers a wide range of  programs that help people who live in poverty, a focus for First United  since its first church was built on the site in 1892. 

Historically, First United ran soup  kitchens during the Great Depression, sent social workers out to help  families living in East Vancouver, held language classes for newcomers  to Canada and collected donated clothes and household goods for the  thrift stores it ran throughout the region. 

Ministers spread the church’s messages of Christianity and social justice through a radio station and a newspaper.

Social programs expanded during the 1960s  and ’70s, when training for young clergy members included living on the  streets for a short period to experience what homelessness felt like,  according to the book Hope Lives Here: A History of Vancouver’s First United Church, by Bob Burrows.

Today, First United’s programs range from a  meal program, medical care, tax filing services, help accessing and  appealing government benefits, legal help fighting evictions and social  programs meant to foster a sense of community and connection.

The new building

The new building will include a bigger  kitchen so food service programs can be expanded, more space for adult  education programs and a dedicated space where people who need rest  during the day can come and sleep.

The building’s transformation from church  to shelter wasn’t without problems: in 2011, women’s groups called out  church leadership after several women came forward with allegations they had been sexually assaulted while staying in the co-ed shelter, and their concerns had been dismissed.

The same year, three pastors left amid demands from BC Housing and the City of Vancouver that the shelter comply with occupancy and safety regulations.

History of colonialism

Lansdowne, who is a member of the  Heiltsuk First Nation, said First United will have to continue to be  aware of and respond to the fact that the church is rooted in  colonialism and patriarchy. She said she is “working towards a process”  of acknowledging those past harms.

That history of colonialism is why it’s so  important to Lansdowne that the church partner with an Indigenous  housing agency and promote Indigenous leadership within the ministry.  She envisions Coast Salish welcoming figures at the front of the  building.

One thing the new building won’t include is  a shelter: First United plans to move the shelter to another location  that has not yet been determined, Lansdowne said.

“We built in as much flexible multi-space  as we can so we can continue to be innovative and dynamic and responsive  to the community, and we really wanted to maximize the built form of  this building having permanent, affordable housing,” Lansdowne said.

“We didn’t make space for a permanent  shelter in this building because our hope for the community is that  before the life of this building is over, there will not be a need for a  shelter.”

Top photo credit: First United director Carmen Lansdowne says that after 12 years of planning to redevelop, the church is finally ready to move forward. Photo by Jen St. Denis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

One thought on “Affordable Housing: Vancouver Church preparing to redevelop”

  1. We didn’t make space for a permanent shelter in this building because our hope for the community is that before the life of this building is over, there will not be a need for a shelter

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