In a small brick house on West Jones Street, the Rev. Hugh Hollowell presides over a hang-out 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 its volunteers were reportedly threatened with arrest for feeding the homeless in Moore Square. Since the incident, Hollowell has gotten calls from Fox News, NPR 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 now 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 approximately 70 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 at Morning Times 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.
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.”
For the first few years, Hollowell had no funding 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 unique model for helping the homeless and needy.
‘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. Hollowell wants to talk with the people he’s helping about their lives – not about Jesus.
“They take the time out and try to understand everybody’s situation, instead of trying to throw something on us for the wrong reasons,” said Tony Parker, a 38-year-old day laborer who spends time at Love Wins.
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 them two days later.
That prompted a notice that Love Wins’ 501(c)(3) nonprofit status had been temporarily revoked. 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.
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 handling of the Moore Square situation. “We don’t think we’re ready to move forward as a city until there has been an apology,” Hollowell said.