Kevin Ensley, an eighth-generation Haywood County native, has served as a Haywood County commissioner for the past 16 years.
While proud of the accomplishments of the board during his tenure, Ensley said there is more to be done, and he wants to contribute his experience gained through the years toward solving what he calls the major problem facing the county.
While it might sound like three separate issues, they are wrapped up into a single challenge — homelessness, substance abuse and affordable housing.
“The sheriff will tell you 80% of the people in the jail are there because of drug use,” he said. “People can’t find a place to live because everything is so expensive, so they end up homeless with a hopeless feeling. It’s all intertwined.”
One obstacle to addressing the issue is the debilitating cuts state legislators have made to the mental health budget.
“The state needs to come out with more funding,” he said. “We need to keep talking to our legislators to find out why mental health is not being funded at the level it should be. They are predicting turnover in the state senate, which has been very conservative, so I hope there’s a new attitude.”
It will be much more cost-effective to address substance use and mental health issues at early stages, he said, and that’s something legislators need to understand. While Ensley said he initially opposed Medicaid expansion, he’s grown to believe that the additional federal funds could help address issues behind mental health and homelessness.
As far as increasing the number of affordable housing units in Haywood, Ensley spoke of two county actions that will make a big difference.
The Smoky Mountain Housing Coalition is raising funds to build 40 homes in Bethel Village, a subdivision donated to Mountain Projects.
Ensley supports donating the $200,000 received from selling the old hospital building to the housing coalition for its revolving fund.
“They would build and sell a house and use the proceeds to build another house,” he said. “That’s a good program to keep affordable housing being built all the time.”
Ensley said he also supports dividing county-owned property on Jonathan Creek into lots where workforce housing can be built.