Ryan and Brandy Nestell, both 35, happened to park in a sprawling, mostly empty parking lot of an old plaza strip mall last week on the west side of Gainesville.
It was just a place to sleep for the night. The couple both have jobs locally, but a spate of financial constraints has them living out of their car right now.
When the sun rose, they found themselves parked in front of the unlikeliest of churches.
Kingdom Harvest World Ministry has now taken possession of what was long ago a movie theater and still looks so from the inside.
Kingdom Harvest World Ministry – Fountain of Hope shelter
Where: 622 Shallowford Road, Suite P, Gainesville
More info: 678-943-8554, firstname.lastname@example.org
There’s a box office and a concession stand and classic double-doors leading into a ballroom-like space where silver screens used to hang.
A Catholic church mostly serving the city’s Latino residents had occupied the space previously, selling rosaries and sacraments from the lobby.
Now, Kingdom Harvest is looking to renovate some of the space for a shelter primarily serving homeless women and children.
“I would step down just to do this,” said David Trent, pastor.
Trent said he has roots in outreach to the homeless. His father was doing this kind of work decades ago in the Cabbagetown neighborhood of Atlanta, literally “knocking on dumpsters and cardboard boxes” to find those in need.
Trent said he’s heard the calling from God, too, to work with the homeless.
“It’s truly our passion,” he said.
It is difficult to gauge just how many people in Gainesville are homeless.
Nearly 200 were reported in the most recent homeless count, taken in January 2017, but there’s almost certainly more.
Local school districts alone count hundreds of students as homeless.
But whether it’s those living in tents by the railroad ties or in park campgrounds, families dwelling in a string of hotels and motels along Jesse Jewell Parkway, or individuals sleeping on their friends’ couches, the numbers are present to the few ministries working this ground.
The Nestells said the welcome and fellowship they received from Trent provided not just an immediate roof over their heads but also a kind of spiritual rest.
“It was very emotional for me,” Brandy Nestell said.
Trent said the initial plan for Fountain of Hope, the ministry of the church that would support the homeless shelter, isn’t quite how things are turning out.
“Our initial plans were to do a day care center,” he said.
But prayer delivered him another message: a shelter for the homeless.
Trent said renovations to the building space are mostly cosmetic. There will need to be some restroom expansions, and he plans to develop a commercial kitchen.
But a sprinkler system, which can be costly, is in place already, Trent said.
According to Matt Tate, Gainesville’s planning manager, the property is zoned for “general business,” which allows for a homeless shelter.
“Because the building is old and the use of the building will change, the building will need to be inspected to determine what improvements will be required in order to meet life safety, fire and accessibility code standards,” Tate told The Times in an email.
Tate also said he expects the property to be redeveloped for commercial uses in the future.
For now, however, Trent said he hopes to have the shelter open by the spring. But winter is coming and that weighs on his mind.
“We know that God is great and it can happen sooner,” he said.