Raleigh homeless feeding flap puts tiny Love Wins Ministries in national spotlight

ccampbell@newsobserver.comSeptember 7, 2013 

  • Moore Square meeting

    Raleigh city staff will hold a community meeting at 7 p.m. on Sept. 16 to discuss alternative locations outside Moore Square to distribute food to the homeless and needy.

    Businesses, churches, nonprofits and residents are invited to attend the discussion, which will be held in the Zanzibar Room at Marbles Kids Museum, 201 E. Hargett St.

— In a small brick house a block off the Glenwood South nightlife district, the Rev. Hugh Hollowell presides over a hangout spot for downtown Raleigh’s down-and-out.

In one sparsely furnished room, a young man gets a haircut while another snoozes on the floor in the corner.

One room over, several people are using free computers to apply for jobs. And in a dingy basement, 21-year-old Curtis Lee is doing his laundry in donated machines. It’s the only way for Lee, who’s homeless, to get clean clothes.

This is the daily scene at the headquarters of Hollowell’s Love Wins Ministries, a nonprofit that gained national attention after it was reportedly threatened with arrest for feeding homeless and indigent people in Moore Square.

Since the incident, Hollowell has gotten calls from Fox News, National Public Radio and Al Jazeera, and his dispute with police on Aug. 24 has sparked a conversation about how – and where – to help the less fortunate as downtown Raleigh grows.

But while Love Wins is best known for its weekly biscuit handout, the effort isn’t the group’s main activity. Five days a week, Hollowell and three staffers throw open the “hospitality house” to 70 or so people who need a place to go.

The staff knows them all by name, making a point to refer to each of them as “my friend.” The goal, Hollowell says, is building relationships – most people who live on the streets don’t have a social safety net to call upon.

“Homelessness is not an economic problem,” he says. “Homelessness is a relationship problem.”

Sparking an outcry

After the Aug. 24 Love Wins food handout was stopped by police, Hollowell had coffee with his staff to plot their next move. They decided to blog about the incident, calling on supporters to contact the Raleigh City Council and demand a solution.

The post went online about 4 p.m. Thanks to social media, the page had been viewed 16,000 times by the end of the night, and the city council received more than 50 emails – enough to prompt a special meeting and draw the mayor to Moore Square the following morning.

“This is when I knew it was going to be crazy,” Hollowell said.

Love Wins wasn’t the only charity stopped by police in the downtown park, but the viral blog post meant that Hollowell became the de facto spokesman for them all. He’s gotten numerous interview requests from media across the country – a major publicity boost for a fledgling charity with an annual budget of $140,000.

The group’s communication director has been making the most of the spotlight, selling T-shirts with the slogan “stop hobophobia” for the city council hearing last week.

Humble beginnings

While the publicity likely will lead to growth, Love Wins has already grown exponentially since Hollowell came to Raleigh in 2007 as a newly minted Mennonite minister.

After years as a financial planner and a short stint owning a used book store in Memphis, Tenn., the former Marine saw the Triangle as a place where he could try out his “ideas about what was wrong with how we deal with homelessness.” Hollowell says he doesn’t see homeless people as “projects” to be fixed, and he doesn’t track success by measuring how many people find permanent housing.

For the first few years, Hollowell had no funding for his efforts and no official organization. He took freelance jobs and spent the rest of his time in Moore Square, getting to know the people who congregate there. By 2010, he had enough backing to create a $20,000-a-year organization, taking on full-time leadership for a $12,000 salary.

Since then, more churches have backed Hollowell’s model for helping the homeless and needy. Hillyer Memorial Christian Church agreed to provide the hospitality house rent-free, and it opened in May 2012. Other congregations pitch in money or help serve food on the weekends.

‘We’re a family’

But unlike most religious outreach to the needy, Love Wins isn’t evangelical. The group doesn’t offer sermons or pass out religious pamphlets in Moore Square, though informal Sunday services are offered for those who want to worship.

“The people that receive these services are very frustrated that some of these organizations make them listen to a sermon,” said Carmen Zepp of Human Beans Together, another food distributor. “Even though (Hollowell) is a preacher, he’s not preachy.”

Hollowell says he wants to talk with the people he’s helping about their lives – not about Jesus. Tony Parker, a 38-year-old day laborer who spends time at Love Wins, appreciates that.

“They take the time out and try to understand everybody’s situation, instead of trying to throw something on us for the wrong reasons,” Parker said.

Others say the Love Wins staff has helped them get on their feet. Hollowell told Lee about a subsidized housing program and took him to apply; now he’s on the waiting list for a room of his own.

Tony Smith, 24, says he recently got a place to live but still comes by regularly, sometimes even bringing doughnuts for his friends. He appreciates how Love Wins approaches the needy as equals.

“It’s not like they look at us different,” he said. “It’s almost like we’re a family.”

Growing pains

Love Wins’ rapid expansion has come with a few setbacks. Earlier this year, the nonprofit’s bookkeeper quit abruptly, delaying the completion of its annual tax forms.

Hollowell says he got an extension from the IRS and mailed the documents Aug. 10, but the agency hadn’t received it two days later. That prompted a notice that Love Wins’ nonprofit status had been temporarily revoked.

The tax issue comes as readers of the viral Moore Square blog post donate money online; Hollowell says he’s received about $2,000 from new supporters since the Moore Square feeding flap.

He expects the IRS problem will be resolved long before anyone takes charitable deductions at tax time.

The group has also had to deal with an unhappy neighbor: the cosmetic dentistry business next door erected a tall fence along the property line to keep the Love Wins crowd out.

Despite the troubles, Hollowell expects to take in at least $200,000 this year, though he’s not sure if the national press will push the number higher. He’s looking for a bigger location, though the expansion won’t mean Love Wins becomes a soup kitchen or overnight shelter. “We’re scared of mission creep,” he said.

For now, Hollowell wants to use the podium he’s been given for advocacy.

He’s pushing for service providers to embrace gay, bisexual and transgender homeless people. He says that Raleigh’s gender-segregated shelters don’t allow transgender guests, who are forced to stay on the streets.

He’s also not done fighting the police department’s approach to the Moore Square situation. Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown explained the action to the city council recently, but she didn’t say “sorry.”

“We don’t think we’re ready to move forward as a city until there has been an apology,” Hollowell said.

Campbell: 919-829-4802 or twitter.com/RaleighReporter

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