As the story goes, UVA grad and Hollywood director Tom Shadyac returned to the area after years away to film his most recent movie, Evan Almighty. “It was really neat to see how the town had grown, how the Downtown corridor had come alive,” he says. “Then I also became aware that a segment of the population was left out of this economic boom.” Twenty-five percent of the city is working poor, he discovered. A couple hundred homeless add to their disadvantaged ranks.
“[The homeless problem in Charlottesville] is a problem that can be solved,” says Tom Shadyac, a UVA grad who came back to Charlottesville two years ago to film Evan Almighty. “It just takes people to say, ‘We’re going to solve this.’”
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As filming continued, Shadyac met local activists and through them discovered the First Street Church was for sale. “Out of that dialogue, I ended up purchasing the church and we came up with a plan and a program to utilize it as a community center and a day shelter for the homeless,” he says, speaking to C-VILLE recently by phone.
Last June, Shadyac appeared at an open house for the church with the idea that it would be open by the end of the year. But complications ensued. “Once you start digging, lots of challenges reveal themselves,” Shadyac says, explaining that they decided to do a complete overhaul as a result of the piecemeal additions to the church over its 150-year lifespan. “We decided to do it all at once and create something that could last for the community.”
“It’s a very flexible public space that can be used by the community,” says Fred Wolf, the project’s lead architect. He is speaking specifically of the majestic sanctuary that occupies the belly of the age-old church. A 3D rendering of its projected makeover shows that when Wolf is finished, the sanctuary will have new floors and a glass awning over a stage that has replaced the pulpit.
“We want it to continue to be a sacred space,” says Shadyac, hoping that it will be used for community theater, poetry readings, speakers, debates or even weddings. “We want to create a space that isn’t dogmatic but is spiritual.”
To the side will be an area for medical services and upstairs the offices for PACEM and employment services, among others. Downstairs from the sanctuary will be the day shelter, showers, lockers, laundry and computers, as well as the dining area and kitchen. “It was very important to me that we had a kitchen and that we start to feed,” says Shadyac.
Late this past summer, Shadyac was forced to intervene in a struggle over the direction of COMPASS Day Haven, the group slated to operate the church’s day shelter. According to its founder, Jim Barns, COMPASS has completely disintegrated, leaving a void the church’s steering committee will have to somehow fill.
“I have the utmost respect for Jim Barns,” says Shadyac, attributing some of the original inspiration for the church’s purchase to Barns. “COMPASS may have had an organizational problem, but it can certainly be reformed and rejuvenated. We welcome anybody who comes with a good spirit and hands to help.”
In addition to buying the church for $2.4 million, Shadyac is also paying for the renovations and will also front the operating costs for a certain period of time. “I can only step up so much,” he says. “The thing that struck me about Charlottesville is the problem is one you can wrap your arms around. It’s a problem that can be solved. It just takes people to say, ‘We’re going to solve this.’”
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