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Waynesville homelessness task force takes shape

Community members packed Frog Level Brewing in October to discuss                                     the homeless issue in Waynesville. Jessi Stone photo Community members packed Frog Level Brewing in October to discuss the homeless issue in Waynesville. Jessi Stone photo

Despite the urgency of the area’s homelessness problem and the cacophony of citizens clamoring for a task force to begin work on the issue, Waynesville’s Board of Aldermen remains focused on getting it right, as opposed to getting it right now. 

“I’m really, really excited,” said Waynesville Mayor Gary Caldwell. “I’m very surprised at all the applicants we got.”

In the first moments after being sworn in as Waynesville’s new mayor on Dec. 10, 2019, Caldwell called for the formation of a task force to deal with what had become probably the main issue of the campaign. Aldermen weighed in, calling the process “rushed” and questioned the composition of the task force.

At the time it wasn’t clear if members of the task force were to be Waynesville residents only, and it also wasn’t clear if the members would be appointed or if they’d be selected from applications. 

Still, aldermen moved to create the task force that night, in part so they could meet a deadline for a grant application from the Dogwood Health Trust. If successful in that application, they’ll use the grant funds — and, possibly match them — to hire a professional facilitator charged with wrangling the group into some sort of productive outcome. 

In the meantime, the town put out notices announcing that applications would be available, and the community response was overwhelming. 

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“Because there were 31 applicants, everyone is going to step back and reassess the process,” said Mayor Pro Tem Julia Boyd Freeman. “We needed to get it right from the start and since we’ve had so much interest from the community, the more time we need to take to involve the right people and players in the process.”

So overwhelming was the response that the town’s now had to push off populating the task force until February to allow plenty of time for the consideration of candidates. 

“The quality of the applicants, out of the 31 probably 28 of them are really great,” Caldwell said. “Really impressive.”

A release issued by Assistant Town Manager Amie Owens Jan. 8 said that due to the influx of applications, “ … the Board is reconsidering the best composition of the group prior to appointees being chosen.”

On Jan. 13, Owens told The Smoky Mountain News that Caldwell was likely to schedule a special meeting strictly for the purpose of making decisions on the applicants. 

Aldermen seem satisfied with the pace of the process, and definitely seem to be more on the same page than they were in early December. 

“We had some growing pains at the beginning and with the number of people who have submitted applications, I’m happy with where the process is,” said Alderman Anthony Sutton, who added that he’s already reached out to everyone who submitted an application. 

“I’m thrilled with the response,” said Alderman Jon Feichter. “When I asked the board to open up this process to allow people to apply this is exactly what I hoped would happen. We’ve got applications from people with expertise in every field under the sun. I’m heartened by the depth and breadth of the applications we received. People were passionate about this and want to be part of finding the solutions.”

“I think it’s good that we’re taking this a little more slowly,” said Alderman Chuck Dickson. “We need to be very thoughtful in our selection process.”

Dickson foresees a task force of around 18 to 20 people that also includes a person without housing. Caldwell has asked each alderman to pick two people from the pool of applicants. Sutton said the task force could even include a number of subcommittees, making it an even larger group. 

“I think everyone who submitted an application will be involved in some manner since they have some interest,” he said. “There’s ample opportunity.”

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