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Moving forward: Commissioners express support for use of old prison by trio of ministries

A plan to turn the old state prison campus in Hazelwood into an epicenter for changing lives is moving forward fast. 


Two weeks ago, a duo of Christian groups laid out their pitch during a work session with the Haywood County commissioners. They hope to convert the former prison dorms into a halfway house and homeless shelter to further their ministries.

Then, joined by Open Door Ministries, which serves meals to people in need, they got themselves on the agenda for the commissioners’ meeting this week. Commissioners endorsed the idea. 

“I think there is general support to favorably consider some arrangement,” said Commission Chairman Mark Swanger. 

The next step is drawing up a contract and lease granting the groups use of the old prison. The small, minimum-security prison was shut down by the state two years ago in the name of consolidation. The county inherited it, but doesn’t have any use for it.

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Representatives of Haywood Christian Emergency Shelter, Next Step and Open Door Ministries — which would operate a homeless shelter, half-way house and soup kitchen at the site, respectively — spoke to the commissioners about their organizations’ work and hopes for a future that includes expansion into the currently unused prison. 

“What we’re asking the commissioners for is a long-term lease on the facilities,” said Nick Honerkamp, the homeless shelter’s founder and president.

What exactly that lease includes — and who it includes — is far from final. The Open Door had been a bit of a wild card in the prison makeover, and they’re still not a definite yes.

Perry Hines, executive director of the Open Door, said they are definitely interested, not only to serve the clients at the halfway house and homeless shelter, but to reach people on that side of town who can’t get to their existing soup kitchen near downtown Waynesville.

“We know there are people in the Hazelwood area that would also be able to utilize what we offer at the Open Door,” Hines said.

But opening a second location in Hazelwood isn’t a decision to make lightly. It would require hiring a second person to oversee the Hazelwood operations, and the cost to renovate the old prison kitchen could be significant. Hines is talking with contractors to determine how much it will cost to get the prison’s kitchen facility up and running, praying about the decision and seeking input from Long’s Chapel United Methodist Church, which is the ministry’s primary sponsor. 

“As I give you a scenario that may work for the Open Door, it is based on the presupposition that there is no major barrier to entering the building that may be cost-prohibitive,” Hines told the commissioners. 

If no insurmountable construction or equipment costs crop up, Hines said, he would want a minimum 10-year lease from the county for a kitchen, dining room and office space for three people, as well as a continuing dialogue with the county about opportunities for expansion. Aside from the buildings the faith-based groups are asking to lease, the property contains three others they might be interested in using in the future, if neither the town nor the county needed them.  

“What are we needing? Room, room and more room,” Hines said. 


Search for synergy 

Why more room? Because Open Door’s services aren’t limited to free meals. Though the organization did serve 35,696 meals in 2013, it also provided 1,043 loads of laundry, 1,132 showers and 128 free haircuts. It held up to 20 daily meetings with clients for encouragement, prayer and direction, as well maintaining a community garden, job research learning center, work program and three weekly and daily worship devotions. If the ministry moves into the old prison, Hines wants its efforts to grow in synergy with Next Step and Haywood Christian Emergency Center, a sentiment that those groups share.

“Seventy-nine percent of our [Haywood Christian Emergency Center’s] funds go to services that might be utilized by other organizations,” Honerkamp explained. 

Principally, Honerkamp said, if all three ministries were housed on the same campus, the shelter’s security person and part-time director could also help with Next Step and Open Door. 

That kind of partnership would make sense, the groups believe, because while they each offer different services and have different focuses, they share a common goal: healing broken lives by meeting physical needs and offering a spiritual reason to change. It’s a formula that works, said Jason Ledford, president of Next Step, so the county would do well to give the groups the means to work together to do it even better. 

He cited research such as a 2012 Baylor University study, which compared recidivism rates — people who get out of jail only to land back inside a short time later — between two similar groups of 366 prisoners.

One group completed an 18-month program based on Christian faith and the other did not. Those who completed the faith-based program had a re-arrest rate 26 percent lower, a reconviction rate 35 percent lower, and a rate of re-imprisonment for a new felony 40 percent lower. A follow-up study found that the program saved taxpayers nearly $8,300 per participant in increased post-incarceration taxes and productivity and in decreased cost to the justice system.   

“One of our goals is to teach our clients to honor governments,” Ledford said, a perspective that he said will return the program’s graduates to society as productive, tax-paying, law-abiding citizens. 


Next Step 

Unlike the other two ministries, Next Step is an organization still in its infancy. It grew out of an already-existing effort called Hands Up Restoration Transformation to provide spiritual support for people incarcerated in the Haywood County Jail, but even as Hands Up swelled its attendance at Bible studies and Sunday morning worship over the past year, its leaders began to realize that the jail was something of a revolving door.

“Our mission is to provide a network that will inspire regeneration through breakthroughs and offer life skills that will achieve immediate and lasting transformation,” Ledford said. 

If the lease works out, Next Step would take over one of the two dorm-style buildings, once used for low-security prisoners at Haywood County Department of Corrections, to offer transitional housing for male ex-offenders in the county. To participate, inmates would fill out an application to help Next Step determine individualized short-term goals and recommend how long the person should spend at the facility to achieve them. Participants would learn personal responsibility by pitching in to maintain the home, and Next Step would offer resources such as computer classes and GED assistance to help participants meet their goals. 

Eventually, Next Step would like to expand its services to female ex-offenders as well, but, true to its name, the new ministry is taking it one step at a time. 

Haywood Christian Emergency Center

The homeless shelter would occupy another dormitory on the property, offering refuge for people who aren’t in Next Steps’ demographic but need help to get back on their feet. The shelter began in 2008 as a response to the economic recession, and since then it has operated out of Camp New Life during the coldest six months of the year, Nov. 1 to April 30. Participating churches take turns shuttling guests, who must test negative for alcohol and drugs, from dinner at Open Door to the camp. There, they participate in an evening devotional, sleep and do morning chores before riding back to Open Door for breakfast.  

But the organization is more than a stopgap measure. Shelter volunteers and employees work individually with each guest, connecting them with the resources they need to leave the streets and get their lives on more solid footing. 

“We’re able to help almost half of them find shelter before the season’s over,” Honerkamp said. 

Of the 442 people the shelter has housed since 2008, 210 found housing by the end of the season, but Honerkamp wants to do more. When the shelter’s services end in April, so do the stability and relationships that help guests move forward with their lives. Moving to the prison would allow that to change.

“By expanding to a year-long program, we can offer food, shelter and programs during the day that could cause more people to make a life change and for that change to be life-long,” Honerkamp said. 


Moving forward

The commissioners have not yet taken any action, but they expressed unanimous support for the groups’ goal of a unified campus for people who need help, whether due to homelessness, recent incarceration or food insecurity. Though the date could get pushed back if it takes Open Door longer than expected to evaluate the financial aspect of the move, as of now the commissioners are planning to revisit the issue at their March 3 meeting. 

In the interim, they asked the groups to work with County Manager Ira Dove and County Attorney Chip Killian to create a draft contract outlining the agreement they would like to have with the county. Swanger expects that a lease could then be written and signed within weeks.

“I appreciate the faith community stepping in,” said Commissioner Kevin Ensley, continuing,  “The main thing they’re doing is changing their hearts. When you change their heart, you change their actions.”

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