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Reforming lives on a wing and a prayer

coverA proposal to convert a closed-down state prison into a halfway house and homeless shelter in Haywood County is gaining steam.

The old prison was given to the county two years ago after the state shut it down, but the county has no real use for it. So it’s been sitting there empty, just beyond the backdoor of the county’s own jailhouse. 

SEE ALSO: Local churches lift the lives of homeless, incarcerated

Faith-based groups that regularly counsel and minister to inmates in the jail have come up with a plan to convert a section of the old prison into a halfway house — a place where recently released inmates can be reformed and remade upon release from jail.


“Most people who leave our jail have absolutely no where to go. Even if they do have somewhere to go, it is right back into the same environment they were in when they got arrested,” Haywood Sheriff Greg Christopher said.

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The recidivism rate among inmates is high, with the same people landing back in jail again and again.

“This is the only thing I have seen that I would put faith in whatsoever that could help us start turning the tide,” Christopher said.

The proposal has three moving parts. Each is separate in a sense — three separate religious groups would have their own separate leases for different buildings on the prison campus. Yet their efforts are interconnected.

• A halfway house in one of the old prison dorms would help people trying to turn their lives around. The program would be run by Next Steps Ministry, but would get financial and volunteer support from partnering churches countywide.

• A homeless shelter in another one of the old prison dorms would replace an existing shelter that operates out of a summer camp. Moving to the old prison site would allow the Haywood Christian Emergency Shelter to operate year-round instead of during winter months only. The shelter is a joint mission of several partnering churches in the county.

• The kitchen at the old prison is considered an ideal site for a soup kitchen, providing the meals that the homeless shelter and half-way house would certainly need. There’s a chance the Open Door Soup Kitchen in Waynesville, an outreach ministry of Long’s Chapel, could relocate at the site.


County support needed

Proposals for the homeless shelter and halfway house were made to county commissioners last week by the respective church groups.

County leaders must decide whether to grant them free use of the old prison buildings for the noble cause. The initial response from commissioners was positive.

“I think this is something that will pay back for our society,” said Commissioner Kevin Ensley.

Assuming the county signs off, the only hurdle will be funding. The faith-based groups behind the proposal would need a chunk of change upfront to renovate the old prison dorms. They would also need a sustained revenue stream for operations.

Estimates of what it will take are still being calculated. But the visionaries who made the proposal believe churches throughout the county will support the mission.

“The churches seem truly interested in providing funds,” said Jason Ledford, the president of Next Steps.

Churches will also provide an army of volunteers to counsel and support the people trying to turn their lives around. 

“They are interested in volunteering, coming in and helping them and propagating the things they need to change in their life,” Ledford said.

Next Steps Ministry has amassed a broad support network already for its current outreach efforts with the jail population, from giving people rides to job interviews to holding donation drives for toiletry items.


The halfway house

Ledford believes a halfway house could be a game changer for people who want to turn their lives around but simply don’t know how.

 “They are getting out of the jail, coming out to the curb, the same people pick them up and it is the same old endless cycle,” said Patrick McClure, who works with jail inmates through Next Steps ministry. “We are trying to reach those people and help them make a life change so they can be a contributing member of society.”

Next Steps Ministry began a counseling program with willing inmates in the jail last summer. The group started small, by simply holding church services for the jail inmates.

“The next thing we noticed was people asking us for help, long-term help. Finding a job or whatever it was. There are people in there who say ‘Help me,”” McClure said. 

Ledford emphasized that the halfway house would not be a permanent living arrangement for people.

“We can say, ‘If you want to stay here for six months while we get the things in your life changed, you can,’” Ledford said.

“Next Step means the next step to re-enter society,” McClure added.

The county certainly stands to gain if the program is successful. Each person who gets reformed instead of returning to jail will save the county money — about $30 per person per night for an inmate’s room and board, not to mention medical care of inmates.

“If we can stop that, that is a direct savings — dollars that can be spent somewhere else,” McClure said.


The homeless shelter

A 20-bed homeless shelter housed at a summer camp on the outskirts of Waynesville has been in operation for five years, funded and run in partnership by several area churches. But the Haywood Christian Emergency Shelter is only open during the fall and winter, since the camp is used during the warm months.

“We see those who come into the shelter for the six months we are open and they have quit drinking and quit using the drugs, but when the shelter closes they fall back into their old ways,” said Russ McLamb, the director of the shelter.

The shelter has a zero tolerance policy. The first time someone stays at the shelter, they have to pass a drug test and take a breathalyzer. Any trace of drugs or alcohol, and they can’t stay. Once they’re in, drug and alcohol testing is done on a random basis or if use is suspected.

McLamb said the desire for a warm, safe bed has helped some give up their substance abuse, however. One man trying to stay there earlier this year failed the breathalyzer three nights in a row. That third night, the temperatures had dropped dramatically and he pleaded to be let in. But McLamb didn’t budge.

“I told him, ‘Tomorrow when you are down there on that river bank and your buddies hand you a bottle, you have a choice to make,’” McLamb recalled.

The next day, the man showed up sober and hasn’t had a drop since.

Its first couple of years, the shelter had no drug or alcohol testing. It served 80 to 90 people those years.

The number dropped by half when the no-tolerance policy was put in place. The shelter has a security guard on duty all night, but it rarely has trouble.

“They actually become like a little family. They become very, very possessive of the shelter. If anybody comes in trying to cause problems, they will come tell security,” McLamb said.

The hope is that a year-round shelter will allow for more lasting rehabilitation.

“We are hoping to get more of the perpetual homeless to buy into the idea of rehabilitation. They will have food, have shelter, have community, have assistance,” said Nick Honerkamp, the founder and president of Haywood Christian Emergency Shelter. “We have no desire to create a safety net that exists forever.”

But Honerkamp is under no illusion that the plight of homelessness can be wiped out entirely.

“There are some we are never going to help. They are in a lifestyle where they are comfortable and that’s what they are going to do,” said Honerkamp, who is also the pastor at New Covenant Church.

The old prison would also be more accessible to the homeless population than the current shelter site. Now, churches run nightly shuttles to the shelter from the Open Door Soup Kitchen in Waynesville and Community Kitchen in Canton. Anyone wanting to stay at the shelter knows when and where to show up for a ride. More than three dozen churches volunteer in the rotation to run the shuttles using their church vans.


The soup kitchen

An unknown variable in the plan is whether the Open Door Soup Kitchen would relocate from its current location in the Frog Level district of downtown Waynesville to the old prison in Hazelwood.

Moving to the kitchen at the old prison would mean a lot more space for the Open Door, which is pushing capacity currently. It would also provide needed meals for those at the shelter and halfway house.

“Having the support of the Open Door would be huge.

I believe there is a lot of interest on their board,” Christopher said.

The faith-based groups have no desire to duplicate the soup kitchen role the Open Door now serves in the community. So if the Open Door doesn’t move, they would shuttle people staying at the halfway house and homeless shelter back and forth to the Open Door for meals.

The main concern for Open Door leaders is whether they would be abandoning the homeless population that live along the railroad tracks and sleep under bridges in the vicinity of the soup kitchen now. 

But if the Open Door moved, the homeless population would likely follow.

“I believe the homeless will follow food. They can do without shelter, but not without food,” Nick Honerkamp.

Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick agreed.

“I suspect if the Open Door is in a different location, they are probably going to find a different place to spend most of their time,” Kirkpatrick said.

The Open Door is an outreach ministry under the umbrella of Long’s Chapel Methodist Church. The board of directors for the Open Door and Long’s Chapel are still in discussions about whether to move.

The Open Door serves more than just the homeless and transient population.

“We do serve other people. We have people who live in downtown assisted living who walk to come get food.

“We also have people who drive to come get food,” said Alice Ensley.

Moving to Hazelwood could put the Open Door out of reach for some who utilize it currently. But it would also make it more accessible to the poor and needy people on the other side of town who can’t get to it now.

“We would be helping a whole new set of people who live around that area,” said Alice Ensley.

Some Frog Level merchants are likely rooting for the Open Door to move. The homeless population that congregates around the Open Door has been a source of controversy over the years. The town has periodically fielded complaints from Frog Level business owners about the homeless population that’s taken up residence in the area. 

The idea has some early buy-in among Waynesville’s town leaders — but not because they want to relocate the homeless to a less prominent side of town.

“We want to make sure we are not just kicking the can down the road. This is trying to solve a problem, to close a revolving door — not just keep pushing the same rock up the mountain,” said Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown.

Waynesville Alderwoman Julia Freeman voiced her support for the proposal at a town meeting last week, calling it a win-win for Waynesville.

“That’s the whole goal of this, to move them into a temporary housing situation and get them off the streets,” Freeman said.



Sold! How the old state prison was unloaded for just $1

At first blush, the shuttered state prison in Waynesville looks more like a military barracks or summer camp bunkhouse than a prison — except perhaps for the concertina wire around the perimeter and guardhouse at the entrance.

But for decades, the tiny, minimum-security prison went largely unnoticed, tucked down a dead-end side street smack in the heart of a working-class Waynesville neighborhood. With many of its inmates on work release, it seemed more like a hybrid prison and probation office than a traditional detention center.

These small, down-home prisons were once found in nearly every county in the state, making it easier for low-level offenders to do their time close to home while also providing local governments a labor pool for road and maintenance work.

But over the past decade, the state has consolidated these smaller prisons into fewer bigger ones, citing efficiency. The one in Haywood was a relic, among the last hold outs of its kind when it was finally closed in 2011.

County leaders promptly began eyeing the 128-bed prison and its two-acre campus. It abutted the county jail and sheriff’s office and would surely be useful for something, perhaps even an extension of the county’s own jail one day. 

So the county struck a deal with the state to buy it for just $1. The state was happy to unload it, and the county was happy to get it.

But the idea of using it as an extension of county’s current jail quickly fell flat. The cost of upgrading the old prison to meet modern jail regulations would cost upwards of $1 million. One thought was leasing beds to overflow inmates from other counties. But at $30 a night per inmate, it would be a mighty slow rate of return for the upfront cost.

“At $30 a day it would take you a long time to get your money back,” Haywood Sheriff Greg Christopher said.

And that’s assuming there is even a demand for housing overflow inmates from other counties — which there isn’t.

Most counties in the region have replacde their undersized, antiquated jails with new ones in the past decade, with plenty of space of their own.

Now, the old prison is deteriorating and will eventually be a financial drain on the county in terms of maintenance and upkeep.

“If we don’t do something with the facility pretty quick, it will end up being a big cost to the county to haul it all off,” Christopher said.

Along came the idea of converting the old prison dorms into a homeless shelter and halfway house, run by faith-based groups that would in turn foot the cost of maintenance and upkeep.

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