First Street Church nears groundbreaking

First Street Church nears groundbreaking

It’s been almost two years since Hollywood director and UVA grad Tom Shadyac purchased the 1839 church that sits on the corner of First and Market streets with the intention of developing a day shelter for area homeless.

“It was really neat to see how the town had grown, how the Downtown corridor had come alive,” Shadyac told C-VILLE at that time, here to film Evan Almighty. “Then I also became aware that a segment of the population was left out of this economic boom.”


Janet Matthews reviews blueprints for the new day shelter at the First Street Church, for which Hollywood director Tom Shadyac is devoting $5 million. Construction is imminent, but the project remains without an executive director.

According to the Thomas Jefferson Area Coalition for the Homeless (TJACH), 292 people were homeless on January 30, 2008, with 231 homeless adults with 46 dependent children in local shelters. Those numbers represent a rise in homelessness, and yet there remains no centralized daytime program for the area’s neediest.

“The project is very complex and a massive undertaking,” says the church’s project director Janet Matthews. “It involved the renovation of an historic building and it took probably a year just to get the design side of it where everything fit perfectly.”

Shadyac’s vision of a place that would welcome the homeless and the less fortunate remains the driving force behind the project. In addition to buying the church for $2.4 million, Shadyac is also paying for the renovations, for a total of $5 million.

The ground floor of the 15,000-square-foot building, now just a shell post-demolition, will include an intake area for a day shelter, bathrooms, showers, lockers, laundry and computers, as well as a pantry and a very large kitchen adjacent to a dining hall that will seat at least 85 people. “It’s going to be a commercial kitchen that is equivalent to any hotel in Charlottesville. It’s just top notch,” Matthews said last week during a tour of the demoed building.

In a sense, she says, the delay has been a blessing. “In terms of timing, it couldn’t be better. If we’d opened last year, the need was not as great as it is now,” she says. “It is going to be a godsend to so many people.”

Jefferson-Madison Regional Library Director John Halliday says that although the main branch of the library has not seen a visible increase in the homeless population, the area will surely benefit from the First Street Church’s opening. “From the library perspective, the day shelter will definitely be a good thing, because we do see a lot of homeless people here,” he says. “Right now, there is really no place for homeless people to go in the winter to get warm, other than the library and the bus station.”

Even PACEM, a night shelter for the homeless, is experiencing changes in the numbers of clients it serves. “We are seeing an increase in the length of time people are staying at PACEM,” says Marie Lynch, development coordinator for PACEM.

Although the strategic planning process of organizing all the agencies has gone “like clockwork,” Matthews says, the executive director of the day shelter has not been hired yet. The position was left open after COMPASS Day Haven, the group first tapped to direct and operate the day shelter, had organizational problems.

Matthews says it also took a long time to figure out “what organization would be best to be inhabiting the building so that we have a sustainable project that would serve the community for a long period of time,” she says. That organization, which Matthews preferred not to disclose before the public groundbreaking, “has 10 years experience.”

The main second floor remains a stunning church sanctuary complete with high arched ceilings and colorful glass windows, which will be used as a public space or can be rented out for private events.

An annex that was added to the church will host offices for the agencies that will provide services for the wide range of clients. “All the classes will be under one roof,” says Matthews. “So that the cycle of poverty and homelessness is broken, and people can step out of that into a new beginning.”

According to Matthews, groundbreaking will take place sometime in the next couple of weeks and the opening of the center is slated for around Thanksgiving.

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