Waynesville Task Force on Homelessness issues final recommendations
Riddled with dissention, defections and a lack of clear direction, Waynesville’s Task Force on Homelessness finally limped across the finish line last week, issuing final recommendations that will soon be considered by the Waynesville Board of Aldermen.
“At this point it has been a long year for many reasons. I’m encouraged by the work that the task force engaged in over this year and I think what we have now is the most comprehensive understanding of homelessness in our community,” said Dr. Amy Murphy-Nugen, chair of the task force. “Through the community feedback, through surveys with people who are homeless, listening sessions and business surveys, I think we have captured how our community wants to move forward.”
At the previous meeting on Sept. 2, members failed to agree on a set of final recommendations, despite more than 18 months of preparation, research, meetings and a 200-person community survey.
It did, however, make one thing clear by motion: a low-barrier shelter would not be recommended, despite just 12.5% of survey respondents saying services to the unsheltered should be limited or end altogether.
A series of high-profile resignations followed that meeting, including Mountain Projects Executive Director Patsy Davis, who said she felt the meetings weren’t productive. Davis has more than 30 years working in the social services arena in Haywood County.
Task force member Dale Burris supposedly resigned at that same time, saying in an email that the group had “gone south” and that he would “now go back to work and help people here in Haywood County,” but Burris had apparently been coaxed back by the time the task force met again on Sept. 23.
That meeting barely met quorum requirements, but task force members under the guidance of Murphy-Nugen spent almost two hours debating the remaining items in the task force’s 147-page draft report, which was issued back in July.
The first two items addressed a series of draft recommendations for the Town of Waynesville to hire additional staff specifically assigned to address homelessness — one CARES coordinator and two neighborhood outreach workers.
Burris made a motion to remove all three positions from the list of final recommendations, but task force members seemed to be confused over what, exactly, a “yea” or a “nay” vote would accomplish.
“I think they were, because it was worded negatively,” Murphy-Nugen said.
All nine members present including Burris subsequently voted “no,” which would indicate that the draft recommendation for three positions remain in the final recommendations. However, a subsequent, contradictory, superseding motion will apparently render Burris’ motion moot.
That second motion was to issue a final recommendation to aldermen to hire the coordinator, but not the two outreach workers.
Burris again voted no, but every other remaining task force member voted yes, including Waynesville Police Department Chief David Adams, WPD Lt. Tyler Trantham, Haywood County Board of Commissioners Chairman Kevin Ensley, Haywood County Sheriff Greg Christopher, Pathways Executive Director Mandi Haithcox, Pathways Case Manager Keri Guidry, Grace Church Rev. Joslyn Schaefer, St. Sophia Deacon Bob Cummings and Hazelwood property owner Wanda Brooks.
“What I heard from the task force is they did not want to move forward with the two outreach workers, but they want to retain those activities so those activities, as they’re recommending it now would be overseen by the CARES director,” Murphy-Nugen said.
The third motion, offered by Ensley and approved unanimously, was to strengthen and expand shelter capacity in the county as well as to pursue other affordable housing options — a difficult task in a red-hot housing market where 42% of unsheltered individuals receive some level of financial support from employment, government assistance or acquaintances but 75% say they can only afford to pay $500 a month or less.
The last recommendation was something that saw strong support from Sheriff Christopher, who remarked that he runs what is de facto the largest mental health facility in the county.
“We have an action item that says the CARES director will assist in building network capacity among other providers, including mental health. The task force wanted us to pull that out and give more specific and concrete action steps around mental health,” Murphy-Nugen said. “So what they considered was a series of action steps that we drafted in response to that request. They range from doing a mental health/first aid training for the entire community, to doing a mental health providers panel so people are aware of what services are available, to exploring the possibility of creating a public-facing free clinic that would be staffed by pro bono providers, all the way to supporting Medicaid expansion.”
Murphy-Nugen said she’d present the final report to aldermen on or before Oct. 5, at which time it would also be posted on the town’s website. That puts the matter on track to be considered by aldermen on Oct. 12, but the agenda for that meeting has not yet been released.
“I think it’s a good compromise,” said Waynesville Alderman Anthony Sutton, who sits on the task force but has abstained from voting, since he’ll be one of five aldermen to consider the final recommendations. “I think we had lots of community input, I think over 300 surveys came in and the clear majority, 70%, indicated that we needed to move forward and do something to assist the homeless. I feel very confident that everyone’s voice was heard and that it was a compromise. It’s not exactly what I would have wanted to be recommended to the board, but again, I get to discuss that one with the board.”
Upon consideration, aldermen could approve the recommendations wholesale, modify them or dismiss them completely after one or more public comment sessions on the report itself.
“From the beginning, we were concerned about strengthening services, addressing existing gaps and responding to the concerns of neighbors and residents impacted by homelessness,” Murphy-Nugen said. “I think we have developed a response in the CARES framework to do that.”