Inside the Gothic-revival sanctuary on Market Street under sunlight streaming through stained-glass windows, a woman is getting a massage. Flowers decorate tables in the dining area, where the day’s breakfast menu offers an omelet with meat, mushroom and onion, grits, granola and yogurt, using as much locally sourced food as possible.
While it sounds spa-like, this is The Haven, a day shelter for the homeless in downtown Charlottesville that was founded by hit-movie director and UVA alum Tom Shadyac and opened in 2010. Four-and-a-half years later, Shadyac has ceased funding The Haven, which has slashed its hours and is now closed in the afternoon. Some fear that it’s the first cut in a downward spiral if the community doesn’t step up to make up the difference. Yet its directors say Shadyac had always planned to put away his checkbook once The Haven was self-sustaining, and that the changes are part of a plan to dramatically reduce homelessness in the area by refocusing its efforts on housing placement.
“Sure it feels threatening and scary to not be open in the afternoon,” acknowledged former Haven director Kaki Dimock. “But it’s important to implement solutions. The Haven isn’t struggling, but it can’t afford both.”
History of The Haven
In 2006, Shadyac built an ark in the mostly undeveloped Old Trail neighborhood in Crozet, and brought Steve Carell and Morgan Freeman to the area to film the sequel to the Jim Carrey hit, Bruce Almighty. During his stay at the Omni, Shadyac noticed the homeless congregating on the Downtown Mall, and the image stuck with him.
The director is known for his spirituality and his generosity. While filming Evan Almighty, he gave all the cast and crew bicycles. And it was a bike accident in 2007 that led to dramatic changes in his own life. He’d already given up his mansion to move to Malibu’s deluxe trailer park, Paradise Cove. In 2011, he released the documentary I Am, which explores the ways he believes people have lost touch with their spiritual sides and what’s important in life. To Shadyac, helping Charlottesville’s homeless seemed important, and he decided to lend a hand.
He bought the First Christian Church on Market Street for $2.1 million in 2007, and funded a complete renovation of the 1897-built structure. “I wanted to do something to help,” he said in a release at the time.
Not everyone in Charlottesville was thrilled with Shadyac’s gift of a day shelter for the homeless.
“There was a fair amount of concern from downtown business owners and the North Downtown Residents Association about what The Haven would bring,” said Dimock, who now is executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Area Coalition for the Homeless, the agency that operates The Haven. “There’s always that fear if you build it, they will come.” But national data doesn’t support the popular notion that the homeless are flocking to Charlottesville, lured by services, said Dimock. When The Haven opened, the downtown area already had five soup kitchens in churches for the homeless, 70 percent of whom are from Central Virginia, she said. The Haven was intended to supplement what soup kitchens couldn’t provide.
“There was no place for the homeless to be out of the elements and to keep their stuff,” said Dimock.
The Haven offers a sofa-filled lounge with a big-screen TV, computers and telephones, an address to receive mail, showers, laundry, and breakfast. Two artists-in-residence have studio space and create programming for clients, who can volunteer to work in the community garden. On an average day, 70 guests, as The Haven prefers to call its clients, use the facility, and 45 eat breakfast there, according to executive director Stephen Hitchcock.
Each guest is given an assessment to determine what they need in coordination with social services and other agencies, such as Region Ten and Offender Aid & Restoration. Avoiding duplication of services is a priority for The Haven. Hitchcock describes it as a one-stop shop: “Our best work is always done in collaboration.”
The Haven’s annual budget is $550,000, and Shadyac was a major donor on top of the $3 million he put into buying and restoring the building, providing $100,000 in 2013, according to the organization’s IRS documents. But while Shadyac’s contributions were significant, three-quarters of the budget came from other donors and foundations, said Hitchcock. So far, The Haven has been privately funded.
Last year, the Kresge Foundation awarded the coalition $100,000 to support The Haven and its board decided to keep that money in reserve, said Dimock.
Shadyac’s original agreement was to fund the cost of renovating and furnishing the building, while the community provided services and handled its operating costs, said former mayor Dave Norris. “I don’t think anyone should have expected him to indefinitely fund it,” said Norris. “He was very clear early on this would be owned by the city of Charlottesville.”
“This was all planned,” agreed Hitchcock. “We’ve been in dialogue with Tom from the beginning. He was going to help us until we were self-sustaining. You should report how amazingly generous he’s been rather than the opposite, that he’s pulling out.”
And yet, the loss of Shadyac’s monthly donation is seen in the reduction of hours as The Haven shifts its focus and resources to finding—and keeping—housing for the homeless.
Since January, The Haven has found housing for 70 people, said Hitchcock. Programs like Rapid Re-Housing work to prevent people from losing their homes in the first place and to get those who are homeless a place to live as quickly as possible, aiding with security and utility deposits, and other support.
Guests are being placed in rooming houses and apartments around Charlottesville, said Hitchcock. The Haven staff seeks out the cheapest housing options in a city not known for its affordable lodging, and they continue to work with guests to make sure they remain housed.
“This is a housing crisis,” said Hitchcock. ‘There’s been a whole shift to prevent homelessness and stabilize housing as quickly as possible. To me, that’s the story of what’s happening at The Haven.
“We’ll always be sheltering people, but the fact of the matter is solving the housing crisis is number one,” he said. “You really can’t make any headway without that problem being solved.”
But since the change in The Haven’s hours, some of its guests are finding themselves back in the street again.
Hitchcock cites low numbers of guests in the afternoon—sometimes as few as four—and the refocusing of staff time to help those who are newly housed to stay housed as the reasons for closing The Haven at noon. The facility may open afternoons in the future, he said, but it will be for particular programs, such as job-related events, arts and music, or wellness recovery. “As always, if there is inclement weather all bets are off: We open our doors to any and all,” he stressed.
At The Haven in mid-July as the guests filed out around noon, several who spoke to C-VILLE were not enamored with the new hours.
“I’d rather see it stay open for the people banned from the library,” said Ariel Morton, who says he was one of the first people to come to The Haven when it opened in January 2010. “It’s going to be hot in August.”
“More people are going to get in trouble—get drunk and get high,” said Jennifer Hollingsworth. She said she’s not homeless, but she relies on some of the services The Haven provides, so the change affects her. “I barely have enough time to get on the computer,” she said.
“If you’re working and get off at 2:30pm, how are you going to get a shower?” asked a man who identified himself only as Stevo. “You can’t wash clothes.” And one thing crucial to having a job and not being perceived as homeless, he said, is personal hygiene. “This place was first established as a day shelter, not a half-day shelter.”
Already the Central Library two blocks down Market Street is seeing more traffic, according to Amanda Downing at the check-out desk. “I don’t perceive it as a problem,” she said. “This is a public place. I’m glad they’re able to be here and not in the heat.”
Hitchcock says the housing programs will open the way for more state funds. And renting out the Sanctuary for weddings has provided income.
Currently The Haven receives no money from Charlottesville or Albemarle County, but in 2011, it sought $45,000 from the city. At that time, City Council was not inclined to provide taxpayer funds, recalled Norris. “We knew The Haven was not maximizing its own potential revenue-generating abilities—for example, by renting out the Sanctuary.
“They’re leaving money on the table on the one hand and then coming to the city,” he said.
Dimock, however, said The Haven was operating in line with Shadyac’s vision by not charging for use of the space.
“Tom Shadyac has a strong belief in the free model,” said Dimock, noting that his family was involved with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and he comes from a background of giving. Shadyac wanted the Sanctuary to be operated like a community center, she said. Over the years, he’s gotten more flexible, noted Dimock, and The Haven now charges rent for weddings, while still offering the space for community events.
Could city funding be in The Haven’s future? Former mayor Norris thinks it could.
“The city funds a lot of really valuable nonprofits,” said Norris, “and The Haven provides a valuable service.”
“The Haven clearly is an important tool in our efforts to provide stability for folks who need it,” agreed City Councilor Dede Smith. “It’s critical it remain open and viable.”
But Smith said it’s premature to say the city will step in to fund The Haven. “We haven’t had that conversation yet,” she said. “We are open to the conversation and recognize the role The Haven plays in our overall efforts.”
Main Street Arena owner Mark Brown has been a Haven critic in the past, butting heads with the organization’s board over a plan to disseminate flyers that would have encouraged direct giving to The Haven while discouraging panhandling downtown. Still, he stressed that he admires Shadyac and his attempt to better the lives of others, even as he maintains that the board could do more to become self-reliant.
“In my opinion, there were some decisions made by The Haven and its associates that ended up alienating many in the community, including many who would normally be supportive of what they are doing,” he said.
Dimock says she understands the mixed feelings some downtown business owners have about The Haven’s presence.
“We have great relationships with a number of businesses on the Downtown Mall,” said Dimock. “Others see us as a hot spot. People have complicated relationships with the homeless.”
Shadyac declined an interview request and said through a spokesman that he would be writing his own article about The Haven.
However, Dimock is confident the director supports the changes. “Tom’s vision was consistent in its focus on respite care and solution building,” she said. “I think this is very consistent with his vision.”
She, too, calls homelessness “a housing crisis” and notes that many people with mental illness or addictions don’t lose their homes. “People see homelessness as an intractable problem with no solution,” she said. She thinks it’s a natural role for The Haven to focus on housing solutions.
“I think Tom would appreciate the simplicity of that approach,” she said.