Religion News: Homeless Find Warmth, Support and Nourishment in Community

Chef Laura Fonner in the kitchen at Duner’s. Submitted photo.

It takes four months and dozens of volunteers to prepare and manage the week-long shelter St. Paul’s Episcopal Church offers homeless women during what’s usually one of the coldest weeks of the year. Gina Thornton, who oversees the church’s participation in the PACEM (People and Congregations Engaged in Ministry) program, says she can always count on local volunteers to help with the many moving parts that allow St. Paul’s to welcome clients in a supportive and dignified way.

“The PACEM overnight program is considered a ‘last resort,’ Thornton said. “At the same time that we offer the women a warm place to stay and a meal every night, the bigger picture for those working with the women is always to find them a more permanent home.” By “last resort,” PACEM organizers mean women who don’t even have the option of spending the night on the couch of a relative or friend. That’s the plight of the 18 to 24 women of all ages and backgrounds who arrived at St. Paul’s last Saturday.

St. Paul’s younger members set up beds for PACEM women’s shelter. Photo: Theresa Curry.

Volunteers and staff are seeing more middle-aged and older women these days, said Jayson Whitehead, PACEM’s executive director. Some of them have battled mental health and substance abuse issues for years, so their lives become even more difficult as they face the challenges of age: “Those who at one time had families may have burned their bridges,” he said. “We’re a safety net for them, but we also work on repairing relationships with families and friends if we can.” The program has inspired some creative thinking on the part of community members, who come up with ways not only to help the women survive the winter, but to put some joy into their otherwise tough lives. “There was a beautician who styled all the women’s hair on her day off,” he recalled. “Another group filled purses with lotion, deodorant, things like that.” Volunteers at St. Paul’s made sure there was a gift bag on every pillow before the women arrived last Saturday.

Parish cooks cooked four meatloaves and four pans of macaroni and cheese for the first meal (“We have a theme of ‘comfort food’ the first night,” Thornton said.) Others baked chocolate cakes and simmered vegetables dishes. Women may play cards and games or watch television, or take advantage of the reading and study area, or play bingo. On Sunday, the women watched the Super Bowl. 

A volunteer serving dinner at the PACEM shelter. Submitted photo.

But usually, “these women are tired,” Thornton said. They get up at 5:45, grab coffee and are taken to The Haven in downtown Charlottesville where they eat breakfast and have a chance to shower, wash clothes, speak with a social worker, and look for work online. Those who must go straight to work from the church pick up a bag lunch on their way out. There’s a great deal behind the scenes that might not occur to a newcomer to this project. For instance, Thornton said, there needs to be a fire inspection and a certain number of working flashlights on the premises. Someone from the church always spends the night, and volunteers arrive to clean up in the morning. 

Thornton said the community participation extends far beyond St. Paul’s. Mt. Olivet Presbyterian Church houses the PACEM shelter for two weeks. Michie Tavern (its owner is a St. Paul’s parishioner) takes over the cooking one night with a baked chicken dinner, area Boy Scouts grill hot dogs and hamburgers one night, the church’s “Carpenter’s Kids” take charge of a meal.

One of the favorite meals comes from the members of St. Paul’s Ivy neighbor, Mt. Calvary Baptist Church. Cooks there deliver a fried chicken and collard greens dinner to St. Paul’s. Agnes Booker, who manages the kitchen at Mt. Calvary, said the church wanted to help but with a congregation of 30-45 was not large enough for an overnight shelter.

Volunteers serve dinner at the PACEM shelter. Submitted photo.

Booker, who has lived all over the world, said she’s always meant Ivy when she says “home.” “Despite everything that we see in the world today, I still believe people are good,” she said. “Especially because there’s a lot of anger in the world, we wanted to reach out.” 

Mt. Calvary, a historically black church, found their neighbors at St. Paul’s to be enthusiastic about some joint projects. Booker said she knew many of the homeless women were older: “They didn’t grow up having take-out pizza,” she said. “They grew up with the same food other hard-working people ate at the time.” Mt. Calvary decided on fried chicken, collard greens, macaroni and cheese and other sides and desserts for the evening meal they fix every year. 

Other neighbors reach out to the larger group of homeless men as well as the women served by PACEM. Just across the road from St. Paul’s, Duner’s head chef has been organizing Tuesday night dinners for about a year. 

Chef Laura Fonner volunteered with Crozet Baptist Church for PACEM last year: “I knew instantly that this was something I wanted to be a part of,” Fonner said: “Food is my life. Why not take my skills and put them to a good use?”

Fonner rallied her colleagues from Charlottesville Women in Food to organize the dinners and found that some of Charlottesville’s most accomplished chefs were just as enthusiastic as she was. Like Agnes Booker, Fonner asked the homeless what they would like for their evening meal: “One week someone at the men’s shelter said fish,” she recalled. Fonner made use of donated seafood from Sam Rust to make fish cakes with coleslaw, potato casserole and rolls. “They loved it!” she said. For the women, Fonner filled donated Chinese take-out boxes with orange sesame chicken, vegetables and rice, and egg drop soup with crispy wontons and scallions. 

Fonner said the process has been instructive for her as well as delicious and nourishing for the homeless community: “Most people think that homeless people don’t have jobs. A ton of these people work but just can’t afford the rent in Charlottesville.”

The whole process opened her eyes to how many working people are just one bad event away from needing some help. “To be able to help the community by simply providing them dinner is the very least that I can do,” she said.

Those wanting to help can find out more and volunteer at Those interested in helping Chef Fonner with food can email [email protected]. 


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