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It only takes one person to change a life

Friendship House. Friendship House. FUMC Waynesville photo

Many years ago when I was an educator, my school was tasked with reading a book titled “The Cycle of Poverty” by Ruby Payne.

The goal was to help teachers gain a better understanding of where many of our students were coming from and how poverty significantly impacts their performance and behavior in school. It’s a fascinating read and highlights an array of topics in depth. 

Essentially, there are three overarching socio-economic classes (poverty, middle-class and wealth). It’s challenging to break out of any class without an outside influence. This is similar to Newton’s law — a body in motion stays in motion until acted upon by an external force. Poverty keeps rolling through generations until something significant comes along to stop it. 

Poverty’s most simplistic definition is the state of not having enough possessions or assets to fulfill a person’s basic needs, so therefore poverty and homelessness are inextricably linked.

When individuals in poverty who finally break the cycle are interviewed, most of them cite another person as being the reason they were able to move up the class ladder. This person may have been a teacher, family friend, coach, youth leader, service provider or someone else, but no matter, most people cannot escape poverty on sheer will alone. They need compassionate human beings to be that external force. 

In Haywood County, there are a number of individuals and organizations trying to be that external force. Nicole Kott, director of Helping Hands of Haywood and the Friendship House, is one such person. Helping Hands is a non-profit that works to increase the well-being of Haywood County and surrounding areas by working with people who are disenfranchised, experiencing homelessness or living in insecure shelter. They also offer street outreach where they find the unhoused and work to get them the help they need.

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I recently stopped by The Friendship House to catch up with Nicole and learn what services they offer and what help is currently needed as we move into the holiday and winter seasons. 

As Nicole spoke with me, several guests came in and out, respectfully gathering what they needed and saying  hello. “Watching people come to us and experience a total 180 is a true gift,” she said. “Whatever barriers one may have, everything gets better and people get healthier when they have food, clothing, shelter and a place to charge their phone.” 

Data collected in January 2023 reported 46 unhoused individuals living in Haywood County, but since July 1, Helping Hands and partner agencies have found permanent housing for 60 people. This is an example of data not accurately portraying the extent of homelessness in Haywood County, but with 60 folks now in permanent housing, follow-up numbers should be significantly less. 

Something that was missing in Haywood County was a central location where the unhoused could shower, get food, gather clothing and seek resources. In 2019, Matthew Blackburn and Carrie Brown, along with a supportive team from First United Methodist Church, started The Friendship House as an outreach program for the church. Matthew is the youth minister and leader for outreach programs at the church and Carrie Brown is a member and avid volunteer for the The Friendship House ministries, which is open from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 7-11 a.m. on Saturdays, where a hot breakfast is served and 45 or more people attend every week. 

“The Friendship House is the old parsonage for the church and was just sitting empty,” said Blackburn. “When we realized there was a need for a central location, we decided to open its doors. My favorite time of the week is Saturday morning breakfast. It’s another way to do church, instead of in pews on Sundays, it’s around tables on Saturdays.” 

Nicole came on board with The Friendship House in May 2023. “Meeting people where they’re at and getting to see miracles happen every day is incredible,” she said. “Things happen for people here that wouldn’t happen anywhere else.” 

When I was there, a couple who recently found permanent housing stopped to chat with us. The relief and gratitude on their faces was clear to me. In fact, I’d often seen these two individuals walking around town and it made my heart happy to know they’d be in their own home for the holidays. 

Some community members feel as though the homeless brought their situation upon themselves or that they can simply “get a job” and live like “a normal, tax paying citizen,” but what I learned from Payne’s research-based text is that poverty is much more complicated than that. Poverty is a systemic issue for most people, deeply ingrained in their family’s culture. To escape from it is a monumental feat. Instead of wasting energy offering judgements and opinions, the best thing we can do is be an external force that helps propel them out of their unfortunate situation. Contrary to the belief of some, many homeless people are ashamed of the “hand outs” and would give anything to have a home and financial autonomy.

Sitting and talking with Nicole, I could see in her eyes how passionate she is about this community. Later in the day, she texted me her “mantra,” which is a quote by Vincent Van Gogh. I want to conclude by sharing it because to me, it says a lot: “To save a life is a real and beautiful thing. To make a home for the homeless, yes, it is a thing that must be good; whatever the world may say, it cannot be wrong.” 

(Volunteers and certain donated items are always needed at The Friendship House. You can visit The Friendship House page on Facebook to learn more and find a full list of items.)

(Susanna Shetley is a writer, editor and digital media specialist. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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