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Open Door soup kitchen to close in Frog Level

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LOITERING — Homeless people waiting for their next meal at the Open Door hang out in the alcoves of Frog Level businesses. Building owners who leased to the Open Door declined to renew the lease for the soup kitchen, which will now distribute meals up the hill in a church parking lot. 

The Open Door will no longer be providing outreach services for the poor and homeless from its headquarters in Frog Level as of June 1.

The building owners put the Open Door on notice earlier this year that the soup kitchen would have to go when its lease was up, driven in part by concerns that it was hurting Frog Level.

The Open Door can continue to use the kitchen for preparing meals, but can’t serve them from there. It will instead take the food on the road to distribute at satellite locations.

For now, the only location that has been identified is St. John Catholic Church, just a few blocks from Frog Level.

The Open Door has faced growing public criticism for turning Frog Level into a homeless hangout, with nearby residents and business owners complaining of negative spill-over. Whether the shut-down of the soup kitchen will mean fewer homeless problems in Frog Level remains to be seen.

“I am cautiously optimistic,” said Joey Reece, who shed light on homeless impacts during a run for town board last year. “St. John’s is so close, I am afraid they will walk from St John’s right back down to Frog Level and that’s where they will spend their time between meals. It is so embedded in the culture.”

Others are leery that the negative side-effects associated with the Open Door will follow the food distribution, including Peggy Hannah who worries her neighborhood in Hazelwood will be chosen as a food site.

She said the nearby Haywood Pathways Center has already had deleterious impacts on her side of town, and they don’t need any more fuel on the fire.

Hannah appealed to the Waynesville town board last week to regulate where the Open Door can do its food distribution under the town’s food truck ordinance.

“I am asking each and every one of y’all not to give permission for one more thing to go on that end of the town. We are overrun and the guys in blue are spinning their wheels,” Hannah said. “Is it fair we have to deal with the petty crime, the nudity, the condoms, the trash, the needles? We are the ones being affected the most and that’s not fair.”

Food truck rules

Similar calls came in over the past week claiming the town’s food truck ordinance limits where the Open Door could set up its mobile truck. But the shoe doesn’t fit apparently.

“Our ordinance specifically defines food trucks as selling,” said Town Planner Jesse Fowler.

Giving meals away as charity doesn’t count.

“The mere distribution of food does not make the vehicle distributing it a vendor,” Waynesville Town Manager Rob Hites said.

Food will be distributed with a Salvation Army canteen truck on loan for this purpose. For now, the single identified spot is St. John's Church, where meals will be distributed between 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. Monday through Friday.

“There is zero food being prepared on the truck,” said Bill Hollingsed, speaking for the Salvation Army. “It is just a delivery vehicle, similar to a Meals on Wheels operation.”

Soup kitchen rules

With the food truck ordinance a moot point, town board members wondered whether there are any rules that do govern which parking lots the Open Door could use.

Hites said that in general parking lots can’t be used for commerce.

“But it’s not commerce,” Alderman Anthony Sutton replied. “If I am going down the street and hand an apple to someone walking by, is that permissible? Yes.”

The analogy isn’t exactly the same, however. The Open Door canteen is more than handing someone an apple — it’s a soup kitchen, albeit one on wheels.

“What they intend to operate is a soup kitchen,” Fowler said.

Town rules only allow soup kitchens to exist in tandem with a religious institution. Simply being under the umbrella of a church doesn’t count, nor does merely saying a blessing before a meal.

“The ordinance permits the operation of a soup kitchen as an accessory use to any religious institution,” Fowler said.

Since it’s automatically allowed in conjunction with a church, the Open Door doesn’t need the town’s permission to use a church parking lot.

“They would not be required to get a permit. Whether the church allows them there is another matter,” Fowler said.

Public lots

Aldermen also questioned whether there was anything stopping the Open Door from handing out food in the town’s public parking lots, like those in Hazelwood or Frog Level.

“I don’t know we could run somebody off public property,” said Alderman Chuck Dickson.

But town attorney Bill Cannon believed you could.

“You do have the authority to regulate the use of public space,” Cannon said. “I think the town would take the position that it is a public parking lot, and it would be interfering with the operation of the parking lot.”

Other services

Aside from the soup kitchen, the Open Door served as a clearinghouse for the homeless — providing showers, restrooms, laundry facilities, cell phone charging, counseling, mail delivery, food boxes and other services from its Frog Level location.

The Open Door's leaders hoped the building owners would let them remain until they could find a new location to operate out of, but they ultimately ran out of time.

Under a new lease, the Second Blessings Thrift Store will stay, as will the kitchen for food prep. But no direct services for the homeless can be provided out of the building.

First United Methodist Church of Waynesville picked up the torch by offering showers a few times a week. Meanwhile, portable toilets were put in at both First United Methodist and the Frog Level public parking lot.

Finding a new permanent location for the Open Door could be difficult given the public scrutiny that has emerged around the issue.

“It has gotten to a point where people could not ignore it and say it’s not happening. That’s in large part due to the community banding together,” said Reece. “People who were reluctant to speak out before aren’t reluctant anymore.”

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