The need for another homeless shelter has emerged as a top issue facing the Waynesville homeless task force — and as is par for the course on the homeless front, it’s been met with controversy out of the gate.

The Pathways Center in Hazelwood doesn’t have space for all the homeless people in Haywood County, nor does it accept those actively struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. Before getting into Pathways, clients must be clean and committed to the challenge of assimilating back into society.

That leaves a segment of the homeless population out in the cold, wandering the streets, sleeping wherever they can find, and ultimately leading to the theft, vandalism, fighting, trail of drug needles and trespassing that has broadly given the homeless a bad rap, regardless of whether it’s a few bad apples.

Enter the idea of a low-barrier shelter: an entry point to get the homeless off the streets and into the rehabilitation system, even if they’re still using drugs.

“If people can disengage from where they are and reset and refocus, they could then be ready to take the next step,” said Waynesville Alderman Anthony Sutton, a member of the task force. “When you are in a spiral, you can’t see a way out until you have some calmness around you.”

But the idea of another homeless shelter has sparked alarm among some Waynesville residents already fed up by the negative repercussions of the homeless population. Before another homeless shelter is foisted on the community, residents should get a say about where it goes — something that didn’t happen before The Pathways Center moved into Hazelwood.

“If they are going to put something out there, we should let the town vote on it, not just throw it in our faces and say this is what you are going to get,” said Juan Camacho.

Where would it go?

Location is the biggest hot-button issue surrounding the idea of a low-barrier shelter. One location that’s been floated is the county jail annex in Hazelwood.

During a meeting of the homeless task force last week, Facilitator Amy Murphy-Nugen said there had been “discussions about possible uses of the jail annex.” By the next morning, word had spread like wildfire among the circle of homeless critics.

But according to County Commission Chairman Kevin Ensley, the jail annex isn’t on the table anytime soon.

“We can’t use the satellite jail because we are using it for inmates, and the jail is at capacity,” Ensley said.

If plans to expand the jail eventually come to fruition, it would free up the annex, however, and it could be a viable location for a low-barrier shelter, Ensley said.

“You have Pathways there already,” he said.

But to Hazelwood residents, it would be piling insult on injury.

“That area has been hit pretty hard already,” said Wanda Brooks, who owns property directly across from Pathways.

Hazelwood residents are already on edge over the arrival of a new nonprofit outreach center corralling various services for the homeless, at-risk and needy under one roof. Called the Bethel Resource Center, it’s being led by Long’s Chapel that once operated the Open Door soup kitchen in Frog Level.

It’s not even open yet, but has already been getting a rap as a homeless hang-out spot, prompting an uptick in “suspicious persons” calls by neighbors, according to police reports.

“We are suffering from an invasion. Unless you live there and sit there and watch it, you may not be aware of it,” said Jonnie Cure, who lives nearby.

But Ensley said the NIMBY mentality — “not in my back yard”— will be an issue no matter where a homeless shelter goes. And it has to go somewhere.

“The bottom line is what are we going to do? You can’t bus them out of here,” Ensley said. “A low-barrier shelter will help give these folks structure to get back on their feet...but that is way in the future.”

Ensley also questioned whether some of the complaints are exaggerated. Those making the complaints take issue with that characterization, however.

“We are told it’s not a problem,” said Jon Lynn McDermott, who lives in Frog Level. “We need something done. I hope I’m not a broken record. Please hear us, we need help.”

McDermott was one of 15 residents with the grassroots Saving Haywood coalition who came to the Waynesville town board this week to express their grievances. Wearing yellow T-shirts to identify their cause, they’ve shown up at town meetings regularly since June to speak out during the public comment period.

“We’ve invited everyone of you’uns to come to the town of Hazelwood and take a walk after dark,” Peggy Hannah told the town board. “But hey, it’s not in y’all’s yard. It’s not next door to you. It’s in West Waynesville, so it’ll be alright. The all right days is coming to an end.”

Breaking the cycle

While Waynesville Alderman Anthony Sutton, who sits on the homeless task force, thinks the idea of a low-barrier shelter is a good one, he isn’t so sure it should be near Pathways in Hazelwood.

Clients going through the Pathways program are already clean, most have jobs, they’re saving up toward renting an apartment or buying a car — and the last thing they need is to be next door to a population that hasn’t taken those steps yet.

“You don’t need people that are potentially using drugs right next to them,” Sutton said. “Logistically, I don’t think it would be a good fit.”

Sutton pointed to the successful, albeit temporary, initiative over the summer to set-up a low barrier shelter in a vacant hotel in Maggie Valley.

Funded by private donations from the faith-based community, more than two dozen homeless people who once congregated in Frog Level were put up in the empty hotel, and it proved just the turning point many of them needed.

“When you gave them structure, some of those folks who had been in the low-barrier shelter could get jobs and get out of that,” Ensley said.

Meanwhile, police calls to Frog Level plummeted once many of the homeless were moved into the Maggie hotel. There was a two-week stretch with not a single call, compared to the past numbers of two to three calls daily.

It showed that a low-barrier shelter wouldn’t necessarily exacerbate the problems associated with the homeless population, but solve them. Instead of wandering the streets and getting into trouble, the low-barrier shelter gave them somewhere to be.

The timing of the hotel initiative in Maggie coincided with the Open Door soup kitchen being forced to close its doors in Frog Level after losing its lease.

As it looked for a new space, critics suggested Long’s Chapel — which operated the Open Door — move the operation to its own church property in Clyde. But Long’s Chapel said the soup kitchen needed to be in town, within walking distance to the other services homeless people need access to.

While the same proximity issue has been cited when talking about locations for a low-barrier shelter, Sutton said there is some merit to removing the homeless people from their old environment to give them a fresh slate, witnessed by the success of the Maggie hotel.

That hotel is up for sale, and while there’s been talk of purchasing it for a low-barrier shelter, it’s not clear where the money would come from.

Cold weather shelter

While a low-barrier shelter appears to be going nowhere fast due to lack of funding and a suitable location, there’s a more pressing need on deck: an emergency homeless shelter when temps dip below freezing in winter.

“We are looking at doing something very similar to a code purple,” said Brandon Wilson with Veterans Services of the Carolinas and a member of the homeless task force.

Once again, however, finding a location is a hurdle.

At last week’s task force meeting, Wilson shared a status report on discussions of possible locations.

“We are looking at possibly utilizing county-owned buildings and property,” Wilson said. “The issue at hand we are trying to wrap our arms around right now is who would manage such a building.”

Those in the room wanted to know what these county-owned buildings were.

“Are there locations?” asked Dale Burris, a task force member who formerly worked as the county maintenance director.

“We have several ideas,” Wilson replied.

“Is that some information you can give out now or does it have to go in front of the commissioners?” Burris asked.

“Well, they are looking into it. I don’t want to put words in the commissioners’ mouth when they are still looking into it,” Wilson said.

“OK, that’s an honest answer. I was just wondering if you could divulge that information, but if you can’t that’s fine,” Burris said.

However, those who saw an article in The Mountaineer earlier that same week — citing a county grant application to fix up the former National Guard Armory in Clyde for use as an emergency shelter — quickly put two-and-two together.

By the following morning, rumors were flying that the county was going to turn the armory into a homeless shelter.

Commissioner Kevin Ensley, who couldn’t be at the task force meeting, cleared things up in an interview with The Mountaineer.

Yes, it’s true that the county has applied for a grant to remediate lead and asbestos in the old armory so it could be used as an emergency shelter. But it had nothing to do with housing the homeless. It was for things like blizzards and floods and landslides.

The idea of also using it as a homeless shelter on cold nights came up after the fact during a task force work group meeting, Ensley said.

“We were trying to figure out what we can do with the homeless when the weather gets cold,” Ensley said. “We were just kicking these ideas around in a committee.”

Ensley agreed to ask the county manager if the idea was viable. But it turns out that it’s not.

“It can’t be inhabited until we remove the lead and asbestos from that facility,” Ensley said. And there’s no way that could be done before this winter.

As for using it as a homeless shelter in the future — be it a low-barrier shelter or code purple shelter — that’s not been discussed by commissioners, he said.

“We really have not settled on a plan for the armory. We are still in flux about it,” he said. “We just know we have to get the remediation done before anyone can use it.”

In past winters, The Pathways Center in Hazelwood has opened up its dining hall as an emergency shelter on freezing nights, and will be doing so again this year.

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