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Wednesday, 20 February 2008 00:00

Is feeding the hungry bad for business?

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By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

It’s lunchtime at the Open Door, a 12-year-old soup kitchen in the Frog Level community of Haywood County, and chatter and laughter fill the modest dining hall. Here, down-on-their-luck residents can get a free hot meal and some much-needed social support. The non-profit serves as a haven from the troubles of the outside world, say visitors.

“It’s so much more than food — this is a part of the community where we know we’re no longer alone,” says Susan, a woman sitting at one of the long wooden tables who declines to give her last name.

Yet Frog Level business owners are concerned that the presence of a soup kitchen is hindering efforts to revitalize the community and attract customers. In particular, owners say that disorderly and drunken individuals — many of whom are repeat offenders — hang around Frog Level businesses after eating at the Open Door, deterring customers and causing a public nuisance.

From January 2007 to January 2008, the Waynesville Police Department was dispatched 56 times to the Open Door, or an average of 6.5 times per month.

Police Chief Bill Hollingsed equates that number with a bar.

“If you looked at O’Malley’s or something like that, that’s pretty similar,” he says.

 

Businesses support ministry

Perry Hines, executive director of the Open Door, is a friendly, easygoing man with a passion for the people he serves. On any given day, one can find him lending an ear to anyone who wants to talk about their troubles. Hines says the soup kitchen does its best to ensure order.

“We have never tolerated disorder. People who come in disorderly are asked to leave. Anything of danger, we try to take control of the situation and cooperate with the community,” Hines says.

Business owners, however, say that the Open Door’s policy of serving individuals who are intoxicated creates disorder. Hines won’t deny someone a meal if it doesn’t appear they’re creating a scene. He says that’s part of the mission — not turning away from those in need.

“When you look at the composition of people a mission serves, some folks will frequent a mission that in the public eye don’t have exemplary character,” he says. “Why are we here if we’re not here to minister to people when they’re hurting?”

Frog Level businesses say Hines isn’t successfully containing all the disorder caused by intoxicated visitors to the Open Door. Lucy Harrison, owner of the Junque Room next door to the soup kitchen, says she’s seen an individual passed out on the railroad tracks after leaving the Open Door. JoLynn Bryant, executive director of the WNC Visitor’s Center, has witnessed people fighting and falling down in the road in Frog Level.

Police reports support these claims: “Male, 56, wearing black jacket cursing people;” “drunk and hollering walking towards soup kitchen;” and “verbal fight outside Open Door,” are all documented incidents among the reports at the Waynesville Police Department.

Harrison said she’s seen potential customers witness scenes at the Open Door and walk around her store on the other side of the street — “these people are scared of them,” she says — and as a result, she’s losing business.

“The way it is now, it’s horrible. It shouldn’t be the business owners’ responsibility to control disorderly patrons,” she says.

“We’ve got to get the intoxication under control,” agrees Bryant.

“They’re trying to help people who don’t want to help themselves at the expense of people down here who are trying to do something right,” adds Leonard Lollis, co-owner of the Junque Room.

 

Doing right, doing business

Frog Level businesses share a spectrum of opinions on how to remedy the situation. Harrison thinks the Open Door should offer follow-up support services rather than simply feeding people and turning them loose.

“You get them in, eat, get them out as fast as you can. They could do so many go do things in there,” she says.

“Morally, this shouldn’t be allowed. There’s no counseling, no policy. If you come in drunk, that’s not helping anybody really. They need professional counseling,” agrees Joseph Chmara, who recently opened Dovetail Antique Service in Frog Level.

Based on conversations with Open Door patrons, Harrison has several ideas — having rewards for being sober, bringing in AA or NA meetings, and providing mental health and substance abuse counselors.

Hines said at one time, an AA-type group did meet at the Open Door. He’s open for groups like that to use the space as a meeting place again, and welcomes anyone interested to come talk to him. He also says the Open Door already networks with a variety of agencies that help its patrons.

Other business owners say plain and simply, the Open Door no longer belongs in the Frog Level community. Once an industrial area of town with a major train depot, the area fell into disrepair and became a haven for the local homeless population.

When the Open Door opened its doors 12 years ago, it served the population that was already present in Frog Level.

“Frog Level was home to a lot of these folks,” Perry says. “Long before the Open Door, this was the part of town where issues developed. It was a sensible location. My feeling is very strongly that they were always here.”

But Frog Level is changing, business owners say.

“Just because it was here before doesn’t mean it belongs here now,” Lollis says of the soup kitchen.

In the past five years, businesses have slowly moved into the area and are hoping to restore the historic district.

“We chose this place because we wanted to help Frog Level, but we didn’t know what it was like” being near the soup kitchen, says Bryant.

Chmara, who recently moved from his home in New York to open Dovetail Antique Service, said he saw the area’s potential from the get-go.

“It was already showing strong potential to be a Greenwich Village atmosphere,” he says. “I noticed there was some kind of food pantry, which was a discouragement, but...I saw some businesses that were taking a gamble.”

Businesses are concerned that the presence of the Open Door will hinder the revitalization process that has already begun.

“Frog Level is up and coming, and the day will come when the Open Door doesn’t fit down here,” Bryant says.

“This place is coming up in the world, and I think it’s time for the Open Door to go somewhere else,” agrees Lollis.

 

Where to open the door?

But where should the Open Door go? It’s a classic case of “Not in My Backyard,” and the dilemma happens in many places where soup kitchens exist.

“It’s an ongoing struggle. We can believe in helping, but we hope it’s somewhere else,” Hines says of the soup kitchen. “The attention of some seems to focus on the isolated, negative instances, not the overwhelming positive impact.”

The location of the Open Door is crucial to many patrons who don’t have a car.

“This is walking distance. It’s an ideal location,” says Susan.

Business owners seem willing to compromise to some degree. Harrison says that “with structure, controls and training, it could be a whole lot better.”

“We think there’s a win-win situation for everybody,” says Bryant.

Hines says he respects the businesses in Frog Level. “I think there’s not a business owner in this community that wouldn’t say I’ve been open, available and cordial to work on the needs they have.”

Business owners, however, say that while Hines is approachable, they feel their complaints have fallen on deaf ears.

“You can ask him and ask him, and then he leaves and we’ve got drunks passed out on the railroad tracks,” Harison says with frustration.

“We’ve talked to Perry, and he said that those people come in to socialize and he wasn’t going to kick them out,” JoLynn says.

Regardless of conflicting opinions, one thing is clear — the Open Door is unique in meeting a need in the community. It’s the only soup kitchen in Haywood County and a valuable support system for its clientele.

Says Alice Ogleman, a frequent patron and volunteer who’s been an Open Door regular for years — “I’m thankful we’ve got this place.”

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