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The soul of a soup kitchen

fr soupkitchenSpend a few hours on the streets in Frog Level, and the heartwarming stories flow like water.

People who have overcome addictions and gotten back on their feet. People who have conquered mental illness and now hold down jobs. People who once had nothing but the clothes on their back but are now paying their own rent. 

At the center of all the good news is the Open Door.

“This is a really good place, real good people,” said Matthew Brown, a homeless man hanging around the Open Door one afternoon last week. “They aren’t here to judge you, they are here to help you.”

One lesson — among many — that Brown has learned from the Open Door ministry is to take responsibility for his own choices. Ask him how he ended up homeless, “bad choices,” he replied. “I will man up to my own bad choices.”

Brown is from Bryson City, where he had spiraled into a lifestyle of drinking and drugs. One day he left his old friends and family behind and showed up on the doorstep of the Open Door after hearing it was a place that helped people.

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Now, he’s working 8 hours a week at Burger King, making $7.25 an hour. He does his laundry and showers at the Open Door, but still lacks somewhere to lay his head at night. That’s looking up too, though, thanks to a voucher for rental assistance from the Open Door. Now, he just has to scrape up $200 for a deposit.

“If it weren’t for this place right here, we would be starving to death. If it weren’t for this place, I don’t know what Frog Level would be like,” Brown said.

The Open Door is a lifeline for those struggling to get by and improve their lot in life. It’s best known as a soup kitchen, feeding free meals to the homeless, the jobless and the working poor.

But the Open Door is about far more than the food.

The Open Door is a constant stream of activity. People come seeking food boxes and clothing, help with their heating bills and rent, assistance finding a job or place to live.  

The Open Door even has a bank of mail slots for people with no address of their own and no money for a PO box.

 “They help people who are down and out and can’t help themselves,” said Loretta Bradshaw, who caught a ride to the Open Door with a friend one afternoon last week in hopes of getting a food box. “There’s not a lot of work for people in the county.” 

A few feet away, Johnny Strickland was waiting for his girlfriend to drive up. He ended up homeless after she kicked him out for drinking and has been living on meals at the Open Door.

They only serve breakfast and lunch, but it’s enough.

“If you get two meals a day you are doing good. You can live on that. But I’m trying to get back home,” he said, as his girlfriend pulled up and he climbed in to the passenger seat.

Inside the Open Door, Ricky Price sat on a bench outside the dining room waiting for lunch to be served.

Price insisted he was a “fallen angel,” and began crying as he talked about how good God has been to him — tears of joy, he said.

“I’ve been homeless my whole life,” said Price. “You know who else was homeless? Jesus Christ.”

Price worked once, but lost his job when he failed a drug test, and has been homeless ever since. This day, he wreaked of alcohol and slurred his words. But he was proof of the Open Door’s philosophy to judge no one, accept everyone.

“Here I am. Did it stop me? No,” he said. “If you lose your job, in two weeks you’re coming down here. It is called Open Door for a reason.”

Price remembers the first Thanksgiving the Open Door served 23 years ago.

“We made the front page of the Mountaineer, the first soup kitchen in Haywood County. We were swamped. We had people setting outside eating Thanksgiving dinner,” Price said.

Many of the homeless people who turn to the Open Door have drug and alcohol addictions, or mental disorders. Enslaved by their vices or delusions, they simply can’t function in society or take care of themselves.

But some are truly just down on their luck. They lost a job, got a divorce, or had a health calamity. Many are capable of working hard and making a living — even if it’s just scraping by week to week — but they had a setback and genuinely need help getting back on their feet.

That was the case for Brian Hixon and his family when they showed up on the doorstep of Haywood County Social Services during a March snowstorm. They were put up in a hotel thanks to local churches, and soon connected with the Open Door.

Now just three months later, he works at Bi-Lo, his wife works at Arby’s, his son works at Walmart, and his daughter is going to community college.

They had been living in Madison County, but hitchhiked to Haywood County in the back of a U-Haul truck.

“They don’t have any places like this or the resources to help people,” Hixon said of why he didn’t stay in Madison County. “If not for the Open Door, we would have been real hungry.”

Perry Hines, the director of the Open Door, said stories like Hixon’s happen every day here.

But the Open Door has a conundrum. It’s built on a philosophy of love and acceptance for all. But what happens when a handful of bad actors are taking advantage of their good nature?

Hines said he, too, would like to see a solution for that. He doesn’t like people drinking on the sidewalks any more than the Frog Level merchants do.

“If they are not respecting the community, they aren’t respecting us,” he said. “How do you fix any community with aberrant behavior in it, distasteful behavior, illegal behavior? How do you fix it? You do it by working together.”

But Hines doesn’t see the people who come and go from the Open Door as a blemish on Frog Level, simply by their presence.

“There may be more people walking the streets, but gosh, this is America,” Hines said. 

In some ways, the Open Door is being blamed for creating the problem, rather than trying to fix a problem that would exist regardless.

“If someone is getting drunk they aren’t doing it here, because we don’t serve or sell alcohol,” Hines pointed out. “We are helping them do things to make positive changes.”

Meanwhile, Zachary Temple was biding his time until he could catch a ride back to the Pathways homeless shelter across town. The shelter isn’t open during the day, so Temple often ends up wandering around in Frog Level until the shelter reopens for the night.

“See that sign?” asked Temple.

He pointed to the rules posted on the wall outside the Open Door, warning patrons not to loiter, not to fight, not to be drunk and disruptive.

Just then, a Waynesville police car slowly coasted into the side alley of the Open Door, paused a moment in the parking lot, and then pulled off again.

“They cruise here constantly to make sure that no vagrants are up to no good,” Temple said. “We don’t want people hanging around here causing trouble either.”

Temple, 29, is new to the homeless life, and hopes not to be that way for long. He had a breakdown after losing his apartment and separating from his wife, landing him in the mental health wing of Haywood Regional Medical Center for treatment.

When he got out, “I had had nowhere else to go,” he said.

He had been living in Franklin, but ended up at the Pathways homeless shelter when he got out of the hospital. Unlike most of the people he’s surrounded by, Temple doesn’t drink or do drugs. But he does have an anxiety disorder and suffers from panic attacks, a condition he suspects was caused by his abusive childhood. 

Frog Level is filled with those who feel like they don’t belong anywhere else, and they’ve come to love the place just as much as the merchants who want them gone.

“It has that energy to it, that feel of old-time, classic, home-cooked. That’s not going to go away,” Temple said.

Back inside the Open Door, Hines had just begun a weekly Friday ritual that taps the healing power of group prayer to lift up spirits that need lifting up. A man signaled he was in need of a prayer, and he was soon encircled by half a dozen people. As they all placed their hands on his shoulders and began praying, tears welled in his eyes and he reached up and clasped his hand over Hines’.

“We can go all week sometimes without being touched by another person, just a pat on the back or touch on the shoulder can do so much to show people that someone cares about them,” Hines said.

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