Evan Almighty director backs local homeless shelter

news-shadyac-small.jpg In director Tom Shadyac's film Evan Almighty, which was  filmed in Crozet last year, God commands Evan to build an ark. In Shadyac's real life, however, a Higher Power appears to have commanded the director to buy a church and build a homeless shelter.

As was recently reported, the Charlottesville Planning Commission unanimously approved a plan to turn the First Christian Church on Market Street into a homeless shelter. In October, Shadyac purchased the 9,340-square-foot, 110-year-old Gothic Revival-style church, which had been on the market for $2.8 million. According to a Neighborhood Development staff report, realtor Stu Rifkin, acting as an agent for Mr. Shadyac and his Shady Acres LLC, sought a special use permit at the January 9 commission hearing to allow for a "shelter care facility" at the church. On February 5, City Council will decide whether to approve the project.

The shelter will be managed by COMPASS Day Haven, a non-profit daytime shelter program for adults, and will include a dining area, kitchen facilities, shower/locker rooms, laundry facilities, and a computer lab and lounge. However, the daytime-only shelter will be located in the basement of the building, which already functions as a soup kitchen, and take up only 25 percent of the total space of the building. Other uses for the remainder of the space, according to the staff report, will include office space for other organizations, community space for art exhibits and poetry readings, and possibly a small scale daycare area in the ground floor and Sanctuary space.

According to new planning commissioner Michael Osteen, the proposed shelter is a "great proposal" and a "win/win situation."

"I think the opportunity to reuse the existing historic structure with only modest change to the exterior of the building, while preserving and enhancing the surrounding open space, is very positive for the character of the downtown," says Osteen.

Indeed, commissioners at the January 9 hearing were gushing over the proposed shelter.

"It really makes it an honor to be a citizen of Charlottesville to know that my neighbors are working on projects like this," said new Planning Commissioner Jason Pearson. Only commissioner Mike Farruggio, a Charlottesville police sergeant, hinted at a possible problem with the proposal, suggesting it might increase the number of homeless people in the area, although he too voted to approve the plan.

In a Hook cover story in December, reporter Courteney Stuart spoke with a homeless man who said that the homeless in Virginia consider Charlottesville a "mecca" because of available services and facilities like the Salvation Army, Region Ten, and churches. Given this reality, once the word gets out that Charlottesville is opening a new homeless shelter, couldn't that attract even more homeless people to the area?

"This isn't a new issue," says former city councilor Blake Caravati. "Shelters and services have always been located in Charlottesville, but the people come from everywhere."

In particular, Caravati is concerned about the imbalance of support for affordable housing and services like this in the area. "We need to have some help from our friends in Albemarle," he says. "The County is not doing anything to help provide these services. I wouldn't put my support behind this shelter idea until Albemarle County supports it."

For Caravati, it's not so much a question of opening the shelter, which he supports, but about operating such facilities properly.

"I wouldn't support anything until there's viable business plan," he says, reflecting on separate shelters for alcoholics and teens he supported, but that later ended up costing the City too much money. "There's nothing worse than not having the money to run the thing."

In a Hook story on the church sale last June, listing agent Lane Bonner, who said other churches were looking at the property at the time, as well as people thinking about turning it into a private school or a music venue, hinted at what came to pass. "There's also the possibility that someone altruistic might buy it and give it back to the community," he said.


A few questions/ideas for consideration: Who will be handling/financing the build-out? Is this not a great opportunity for both a "Green" retrofit, a "Green" operation, and a job training opportunity? Is it not a good project for UVA's school of Architecture students interested in sustainable architecture as well as a good Policy project to design an operation that is both sustainable (environmentally and financially) and a possible project for Business majors to assist in developing some small businesses to fund the operation? Is there garden space? Greenhouse on the roof? Green roof? Certainly this could be a first and a model in many areas.

I'm pretty sure Mr. Shadyac wanted to remain anonymous...

Sounds like a good idea to pass on to the NYC Catholic Churches - they are closing so many - suggesting the re-purposing of the buildings. Giving back is the key. Wow what a concept!

Note to Council - vote yes! It's a good thing.