HAZELWOOD — A dozen or so residents who have been waging a months-long battle to rid their community of litter, carelessly discarded syringes and other perils of vagrancy found a glimmer of hope in an idea being explored by N.C. Rep. Mark Pless.

Pless and other elected leaders in the county attended an informal session at Hazelwood Park Sunday evening to answer concerns many had over a recently released draft report issued by Waynesville’s task force on homelessness and other issues associated with those who are unhoused.

Pless has been exploring ways to open a nonprofit drug treatment center in Haywood and has been bringing elected leaders to Raleigh to tour a facility that has an 82% success rate in helping those addicted turn their lives around.

The center would be a place for those in crisis to detox before advancing into the rehabilitation part of the program. As individuals moved through the program they would initially stay in a dormitory area, but eventually shift to a four-person room where they could stay while working in the community and continuing their treatment. Those who didn’t follow the rules would be asked to leave the program, but could return at a later date.

“It’s not uncommon for people to go through six to seven phases before they can hold on,” Pless said. “They can come back free of charge.”

The Raleigh center receives about 20% of its funding from the proceeds local governments get from liquor sales at the ABC stores in their jurisdiction. Program participants pay a nominal fee once they can return to work. Pless said he is hoping to get enough funding to open and operate a similar program in Haywood for at least five years before having to worry about finances.

Pless said the initial funding will be from the first wave of a drug settlement lawsuit awarded to the state where the proceeds have been earmarked for treatment. He is introducing local leaders to the idea as they will need to decide if this is something that would work in Haywood.

So far, officials from Maggie Valley, Waynesville and Clyde have toured the facility, and Pless is working on another date in early August for those unable to attend the first tour.

Nonprofit model

The model, he explained, would be set up just like that used at Healing Transitions, and would be operated by a nonprofit organization that would be set up to administer the program. In the beginning it would be for men only.

Peggy Hannah, who started a group called Saving Haywood, indicated the program showed promise.

“I can get 95% behind this,” she said. “If we get this model up, it would be the first ray of hope in separating the addicted from the homeless and the criminals.”

The center would be for treatment, Pless said, noting very few of the 150 or so individuals at Healing Transitions were homeless.

Several at the meeting expressed an interest in a faith-based program, but Pless contended that would drive away 50% of the people who would use it and said he would press to follow the Healing Transitions model.

Hannah asked Waynesville Police Chief David Adams whether he thought such a facility would eliminate the majority of the people sleeping in the bushes and loitering about town.

“I want to visit the center,” Adams said. “It has the potential to greatly help.”

Melanie Williams asked how that would address those who view being homeless and using drugs as a lifestyle of choice.

“Where is the solution for that?” she asked.

“It’s a national problem that all are grappling with,” said Kevin Ensley, Haywood County Commission chairman.

“I agree there should be rehabilitation, but there should be punishments for people who chose this as a lifestyle,” Williams said.

Raife Davis spoke out against the concept of low-barrier shelters, something he called a “death knell” for Haywood County. He urged leaders in Haywood to simply take the issue off the table.

Pless said the best way to do that was to ask Waynesville elected officials not to change the Waynesville zoning rules.

The town planning board reviewed a proposed ordinance change that would allow low-barrier shelters in certain areas, but after a public outcry, the proposal was tabled.

Several in the group lamented that the organization Down Home is a dominant voice in the draft proposal put forth by the Waynesville task force on homelessness, and that building a low-barrier shelter is one of the task force recommendations, something that Alderman Jon Feichter disputed.

“You have stated as fact that Down Home is running the task force and that is not true,” he said, stressing that the draft proposal is just that, and public comment will be considered before any plan is adopted.

Indeed, the 147-page report does not recommend building a low-barrier shelter, but the concept is one of three options listed under the housing portion of the draft report.

A community open house where members of the public can comment on the draft document is scheduled for 5-8 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 5 at the Waynesville Recreation Center. The task force will consider formally approving a plan Sept. 2, and it would then go to the Waynesville Town Board for consideration Sept. 28.

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