There is something notably different about East Hastings these days. The corner at Gore is missing a recognizable landmark—FIRST UNITED’s old church building. That’s because we’re currently undergoing a redevelopment, demolishing the old building to make way for a new purpose-built facility that will better serve the current and growing needs of the Downtown Eastside.
While we’ve outgrown the former building, it still holds a significant place in the history of the DTES. The nearly 60-year-old church building was a symbol of refuge and hope, a temporary home, and sanctuary for folks who have lived in and come through the DTES over the decades. Much of our legacy was born out of that building.
Known as the “church of the open door,” community members could access our low-barrier programs right in the heart of the DTES. The building’s central location, paired with our long-standing reputation as a reliable service provider in the community, meant that churches and agencies often approached FIRST for the use of our space and resources. Because of our willingness to take risks in the name of justice, some of the most progressive programs in the DTES were developed in that building and are still around today.
When St. Michael’s Anglican Church lost government funding for its drop-in centre for sex workers, St. Michael’s turned to us for help. In the 80s, we opened our doors to what is now known as WISH Drop-In Centre. Space in the church provided a safe retreat for women in sex work to take showers, use washrooms, receive warm and nutritious meals, as well as establish friendships and receive support from staff and volunteers.
The old building also served as an incubator for Insite, the first legalized safe injection facility in North America. Committed to operating from a harm reduction perspective, we worked with other agencies to ask the government to back a supervised safe injection site. To help move the process forward, we agreed to open a pilot site. By the fall of 2002, a room of the church was transformed into a mock safe injection site for a week.
This project ultimately moved governments to provide support and since then, Insite has been credited with saving countless lives, having never had a fatal overdose within their facility, and acting as a model for other safe injection sites across the country.
Over the years, we did our best to adapt our space to accommodate the needs of the community—like removing pews in the sanctuary to install bunk beds for comfortable shelter. But there was only so much we could do in a building that was originally designed to serve a congregation.
While we prepare for the construction of our new building, we continue to remember all that took place in our former building and the role it has played in the DTES. No matter what building we’re in, FIRST UNITED will always be a sanctuary in the heart of the city.