A plan to turn the old state prison campus in Hazelwood into an epicenter for changing lives is moving forward fast.
On Sept. 12, Jeff Clontz walked out of Haywood County Jail a free man. It wasn’t his first time, though. Jail, release and failing to pay child support comprised a cycle he knew well, but this time was different. When Clontz left the jail, he left behind more than just physical bonds. His spiritual bonds were gone, too.
A 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.
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.
For more than a month, 25-year-old Slyenia Rhein and her three children lived in a single hotel room with her mother, her father, her sister, a dog and a cat.
The number of homeless school children in Haywood County has risen by nearly 20 percent this year compared to last.
The county uses the definition of homelessness contained in the McKinney-Vento Act — any individual who lacks a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence. That could mean that the children are staying with a relative temporarily, in a hotel, sleeping in a car or at a shelter.
Standing next to Louis “Louie” Bing, you’d never know he was homeless.
While waiting for a cup of coffee at City Bakery in Waynesville, the 65-year-old stands patiently alongside tourists, retirees and locals. His clothes, shoes and beard are well kempt.
Suitcase in hand, freshman Jared Conrad was ready to move into his box and prepare for the night to come.
The day was plagued with off and on rain — a concern for Conrad and other Tuscola High School students who would later spend the night out in the elements with little more than a cardboard box and a sleeping bag to protect them.
The Waynesville high school’s SWAT, or Students Will Achieve Together, team has held the event, which raises money and awareness for the homeless and poor, for four years.
The team raised about $2,500 this year, said teacher Cindy Shipman, the event’s coordinator. All the proceeds go toward the “Share the Warmth” program, which helps those who cannot afford to pay their electric bill.
“I needed something crazy to do to help people,” Shipman said jokingly.
This year, the boxes were decorated with business names, including Burger King, Wal-mart, the Maggie Valley Club and Waffle House — which were among more than 30 businesses to donate money or food to the event.
The renovated boxes provide shelter for the students as they tell stories, roast marshmallows and, if they are lucky, sleep. While most of the makeshift homes were simple, some students taped two boxes together for a roomier feel; one was complete with a hanging lamp and skylight; and another was painted to look like a castle.
Freshmen Faith Jaynes and Brittney Webb said they were nervous but would have fun no matter what.
“I know how it is to be cold and stuff, but I don’t know how it is to be homeless,” Jaynes said.
The night was part of an area effort to keep the disadvantaged warm and fed during the winter months.
Earlier this month, students and fans donated canned goods in honor of their favorite team at the Pisgah-Tuscola football game. Pisgah collected 2,746 lbs, and Tuscola donated 4,301 lbs.
“It makes you feel better more and more each year,” said junior Jenny West, who has participated for the past three years.
Like many of her fellow students, West said she enjoys helping people. However, teacher Deb Wright thinks the students participate because of something more.
“I think it is the novelty of the thing,” Wright said.
And, although Shipman was concerned the rain might sully their boxes, the sky remained relatively clear and throughout the night temperatures ranged from 52 to 55 degrees — not nearly as cold as a previous year when it snowed.
A homeless shelter has opened in Sylva to provide an escape from the frigid nights.
The shelter, located at Lifeway Church in Sylva, is the only homeless shelter in Jackson County. It will remain open through March.
About a month ago several local organizations met to discuss the need for a homeless shelter amid fears the spiraling economy would leave people with nowhere to turn.
Local churches have committed to staff the homeless shelter in Sylva with volunteers.
The shelter is working in partnership with the Community Table to provide meals.
Lifeway Pastor Mike Abbott doesn’t know how many homeless people there are in the Sylva area, but said, “We definitely have homelessness.”
With the winter being so cold this year, there needs to be a place for them, he said. The shelter opened about two weeks ago, and as of Sunday (March 1) no one had stayed there.
He said the homeless may not realize it’s there or they may have gone south or to Buncombe County by now. The shelter is open from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. seven days a week.
Abbott said the plan is for Lifeway to host the shelter again next year with it opening Nov. 1.
“I’m excited that in a relatively short period, community organizations and churches were able to come together and accomplish opening this up,” Abbott said. “This speaks well of the community. A lot of good people made this happen.”
The shelter can accommodate about 20 people and there is additional space for women with children and families, he said.
Mountain Projects Executive Director Patsy Dowling said the economy is causing people who normally wouldn’t need help to seek assistance.
“More people are losing their jobs and their healthcare,” she said. “The faces of people in need are changing.”
Many people who have lost their jobs and need food stamps can’t get them because they have assets that preclude them from qualifying, she said.
Laid off employees are having trouble paying their rent and can’t get help because the rental assistance program waiting list at Mountain Projects is “years long,” said Dowling.
Utility bills are becoming harder to pay for people affected by the economy.
Churches in Haywood County have banded together to open a homeless there, too. Space is being provided at Camp New Life.
Dowling spearheaded the community meetings to bring the homeless shelters to Jackson and Haywood counties. Her interest was sparked in December when there was a homeless couple in Waynesville that needed a place to stay.
There was nowhere in Waynesville and nothing available in Asheville. She felt bad that the only thing Haywood County could offer the couple was gas money to get to a shelter in Tennessee.
“We should have a place for people to get back on their feet,” she said.
Asked if she thinks it took too long to get shelters open in Jackson and Haywood counties, Dowling said she is not going to look back.
She said there is also a need for food and clothing, noting that the Community Table may expand its hours and her church in Tuckasegee may open a food pantry.
Dowling has a long list of heartbreaking stories, including a 61-year-old woman who can’t afford heating oil and groceries.
“I hear so many stories of people who were making $20 an hour last year and now are walking into my office with utility disconnect notices,” she said.