ON ARCHITECTURE- Tom already: Construction to begin on Shadyac's shelter

Around Thanksgiving, this old church will become a cultural center and sanctuary for the down-and-out.
The man who catapulted Jim Carrey to fame, Tom Shadyac.

After three years, the vision of Hollywood director/UVA grad Tom Shadyac for a day-shelter along Market Street, is finally becoming a reality.

While filming Evan Almighty in Crozet in 2006, where a giant ark was built near a traffic circle Old Trail Village, Shadyac was living at the Omni hotel on the Downtown Mall, where he noticed a number of homeless people outside.

According to Jim Barns, who founded a would-be shelter called Compass Day Haven, the director befriended several homeless people and even put them up at the Omni.

"He's a religious guy, but he doesn't wear it on his sleeve," says Barns. "Stories of his generosity while he was filming here are legendary."

Shadyac went one step further. In 2006, he purchased the former First Christian Church for $2.1 million.

"I wanted to do something to help," Shadyac says in a release.

Not only did Shadyac purchase the church, he's also funding the renovation of the 9,340-square-foot, 110-year-old Gothic Revival-style building and its simple brick addition, an effort that began in earnest on March 16. 

But why has it taken three years?

"The project is extremely large in scope," explains project director Janet Matthews. "It was important to have everything correct before we opened our doors."

If all goes according to plan, Matthews says the facility should be open around Thanksgiving. She declined to reveal the budget but said it will be a "complete renovation" of the interior, including new electrical and HVAC systems. Architect and Board of Architectural Review Board Chair Fred Wolf has the design honors, and construction firm Hale & White will handle the renovation.

Matthews also says it wouldn't technically be a homeless shelter.

"The center will offer a broad set of services to anyone in need," she says. "The whole purpose of the project is to serve the community, and that doesn't just mean the homeless."

The day shelter component will offer a full-service kitchen for free daily breakfast. Plus, there will be showers and laundry facilities, and "plenty of space to allow people to seek refuge both from the natural elements and the harsh realities of everyday life."

There will also be employment counseling, job training services, free medical and mental health screenings, and substance-abuse counseling– as well as space for 12-step groups and instruction in the English language.

As if that weren't enough, the old sanctuary will also play host to events and performances such as theater, poetry readings, debates, and even weddings.

"It will be a very flexible space for the community," says Matthews.

"We wanted to create a place that not only helped to solve immediate problems, but that could help break the cycle of poverty," says Shadyac.

Toward that end, Matthews says they plan to house various local community service organizations and make the church "a home for our partners who are already serving the community." 

 "For over a hundred years, the church was a sacred space," says Shadyac. "What's more sacred than a community coming together to serve those in need, or to gather to celebrate art, music, or culture?"

While the project has enjoyed widespread support, some suggest it might actually increase homelessness in Charlottesville. One homeless man interviewed by the Hook explains that many homeless consider Charlottesville a "mecca" because of available services and facilities like the Salvation Army, Region Ten, and soup-serving churches.

Given that charitable landscape, what will happen when word gets out about a Hollywood director's new day shelter? For mayor/homeless advocate Dave Norris, it's a non-issue.

"Homeless people are already congregating in the downtown area," says Norris, "and having a day shelter would offer them a more appropriate place to spend time during the day, and access to the resources and services they need to get back on their feet."

Perhaps the most poignant endorsement for what's being called the First Street Church Project came from Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo, who mentions in a letter of support to Barns that a family member of his had once been homeless. 

"Far too often," Longo wrote, " I encounter persons in our public parks or on our public streets that are without food and shelter. Sometimes, these persons are substance impaired, but more often than not they are simply hungry and in need of human interaction and care."