Mixed feelings among residents on new plans for old prison
By Jake Flannick • SMN Correspondent
Haywood County leaders have all but signed off on plans by a pair of faith-based groups running social service ministries in the county to convert a defunct state prison into a homeless shelter and halfway house.
The plan has been lauded as a way to help the down-and-out turn over a new leaf and remake themselves into upstanding, contributing members of society. The catch: the old prison sits in close proximity to residential, neighborhood streets.
The creation of a homeless shelter, halfway house and possibly a soup kitchen could attract a population of transients with less-than-stellar pasts, congregating and loitering in the residential neighborhoods around the old prison site.
Opinions among residents of the area are mixed, according to a random door-to-door survey of residents this week.
Some residents expressed reservations about living near such facilities. That was especially true for the halfway house, which offers rehabilitation services to a demographic some might see as threatening, from those facing substance abuse and mental health issues to former inmates.
“It’s a concern,” said Stephanie Jensen, 44, who lives in the vicinity.
While she acknowledged the good intentions of such social service programs — studies have shown that in general, the recidivism rate for released inmates who seek some form of counseling is significantly lower than that of those who do not — she pointed out that the old prison is across the street from a bar, which she feared might pose a temptation for some at halfway house who are struggling with alcohol addiction.
Others appeared less wary. The population served by a homeless shelter or soup kitchen are unfairly maligned and may simply be down on their luck as a result of life circumstances, said Catherine Greene, a retiree.
“Not all of them are dangerous,” said Greene, standing at the doorway of her Hemlock Street home across the street from the old prison.
Many of the nearly dozen residents interviewed for this article over the past week were well aware of the plans by faith-based groups to put the no-longer-used prison to use. How neighbors reacted to the prospect of such facilities was, of course, a matter of perception.
Take Jack Schmidt, for example, who was stopped on the street while walking home from work. Although he was unaware of plans to reuse part of the old prison, he appeared to embrace the thought of a homeless shelter and halfway house opening down the street from where he lives.
“I think it’s a great idea,” said Schmidt, 23, who works at a nearby trade school. He recalled a recent conversation among co-workers about the rugged lifestyle homeless people face, trying to imagine what it would feel like to go without shelter for long periods particularly during winter months. “Sometimes there’s no place for them to stay.”
But another nearby resident, R.L. Henderson, isn’t comfortable with his neighborhood becoming a hangout for those frequenting the soup kitchen, homeless shelter or halfway house.
“If we let them roam, that would be a concern,” said Henderson, who is retired.
While he has long lived across the street from the old minimum-security prison, Henderson has always felt safe.
“I’ve never locked my doors,” he said. Prisons are designed to keep people in, and they don’t come and go.
Asked if he might use the locks if the plans for a shelter and halfway house go through, he replied, “Yeah.”
Leaders of the faith-based groups are aware of such concerns.
They expect they would hire some kind of security presence, particularly after nightfall, and work closely with the county sheriff’s office, which is within sight of the old prison. In the meantime, they are quick to offer assurances.
“It’s going to be safe,” said Jason Ledford, president of Next Step Ministry, which would manage the halfway house. “I’m confident that it will work out.”
The halfway house would operate less as a safety net and more as a supportive service, offering education resources including computer and GED preparation classes as part of a requirement that its clients, currently male-ex offenders, pursue long-term plans to find a job and recover from any addiction.
“Most of these people are looking for a new life … looking for a hand up, not a handout,” said Ledford, who formed a counseling program in the county jail last summer.
Rev. Nick Honerkamp, the founder and director of Haywood Christian Emergency Shelter, said it’s the same for his clients, who have “personal growth plans” and will participate in rehabilitation programs for much of the day.
“They’re not going to be idle,” he said. The existing shelter, housed at a summer camp, only operates during winter months. It houses an average of 80 people on-and-off in the fall and winter months and since opening in 2008, it has seen “very few incidents,” Honerkamp said. It has a security guard on shift at all times and has a zero-tolerance policy on drugs and alcohol, including urine test and breathilizers for those staying at the shelter. Moving into the old prison would enable the shelter to operate year-round.
Despite the concerns, Honerkamp said he believes the groups will draw support.
“The mountain people here are so gracious and so kind,” said Honerkamp, who has lived in the area for the past 35 years. “There’s a lot of people who like to help.”