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When worlds collide: Vexed by loitering homeless, Frog Level merchants beg for help combatting soup kitchen’s overflow

coverTeri Siewert picked up a pink Hello Kitty alarm clock by the cord and dragged it out from under the bushes behind her classy art gallery on the outskirts of downtown Waynesville.

“You wouldn’t believe the stuff we find,” she said. “You’ll see wine bottles, you’ll see beer bottles, you’ll see discarded clothing.”

SEE ALSO:
• The soul of a soup kitchen
• Adding to the problem

It’s not fair and it’s not right, Siewert said, as she swept her building’s perimeter for the telltale signs of last night’s revelry by a growing encampment of homeless people who inhabit the Frog Level area.

Merchants are fed up with a small, loose-knit group of homeless people who idly loiter on the streets and sidewalks outside their shops all day and night, sleeping under nearby bridges and anywhere else they can find.

“We’ve had people camp on our back deck. When my wife gets here for an early morning class, there have been people with all their belongings spread out on the deck in the back,” said Mel Fergenbaum, owner of Mountain Spirit Wellness yoga and massage studio.

They pack up and scurry off, but leave the remnants of their escapades behind.

“There is no one else to do it, so we’ve got to pick it up,” Fergenbaum said.

The trash, the public drinking and the disruptiveness are not merely a nuisance, merchants say. The image of Frog Level caused by the homeless loiterers is hampering its revitalization and blocking the expansion of downtown’s shopping district, according to merchants.

In merchants’ eyes, the Open Door soup kitchen located in the heart of Frog Level is the breeding ground for the problem.

Tom Sheppard, owner of Bear Den Antiques in Frog Level, is careful not to blanketly disparage everyone who comes and goes from the Open Door charity site.

“But there is a handful who litter trash, beer cans, cigarette butts, condoms and worse around and in our trees, bushes and planters,” said Sheppard.

The biggest sore point with merchants is the scruffy crowds that camp out around the newly-installed art sculpture — a life-sized statue of children catching tadpoles from a pond, flanked by benches and plantings.

When it was installed last year, it was supposed to be the crowned jewel of Frog Level, but instead it’s a symbol of merchants’ dilemma.

“Our dream was families would come down and want to take their picture with the statue. Instead it’s surrounded by people with their shirts off, with open containers of beer, smoking,” Siewert said. 

Jack Wadham, one of Frog Level’s longtime storeowners, has a bird’s eye view of the sculpture across the street from his shop.

“The only people that are using it are these people hanging out all day long drinking and doing the rest of this,” he said. “I watch and when the Open Door opens up for lunch, they all get up and go in.”

The Open Door is a magnet for the homeless and impoverished. Its generosity and welcome arms have a reputation among the poor as the go-to place to get help.

It even draws the downtrodden from neighboring counties. Like displaced refugees with nowhere else to turn, they make a pilgrimage to the Open Door. It’s a beautiful act of humanity to extend a hand, but it comes at a price to the surrounding community.

“They bring these people down there but they have to be held responsible. Somebody has to be responsible,” said Wadham. “Why do they need to be hanging down here all afternoon? You name it, it goes on.”

The merchants say their own economic well being is being compromised, and they say it’s not fair to make Frog Level a de facto hub for the region’s homeless.

Some merchants have stated they want the soup kitchen to go elsewhere.

“A food bank and vibrant go-to shopping district will never work,” Sheppard said. “Decisions need to be made. Is Frog Level going to be a real commercial district or not? The economy is improving. The time is now.”

Merchants distinguish between the Open Door patrons who truly need a hand up, versus those who live a vagabond lifestyle and take advantage of handouts as their chosen path in life, with no sign of changing.

“We all realize there are many hungry people in our community needing help,” Sheppard said.

“When people are down and out on their luck, by all means let’s help,” said Fergenbaum.

“There is not one of us who doesn’t support feeding the homeless,” Siewert agreed.

But several people in the homeless encampment along Richland Creek don’t fall in that category.

The hobo lifestyle offers a certain freedom, and some intentionally choose it.

“There are people who sleep outside who we have offered to find places to sleep. We want to get them in a safer environment. But they would prefer to sleep outside,” said Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed.

If that’s the case, merchants question whether they could ever co-exist with a soup kitchen in their midst.

“If their food source stops, they will move on to another food source. This is their way of life,” Sheppard said.

A wake-up call came last week when a man jumped in a woman’s car in a nearby McDonald’s parking lot at lunch time and pulled a knife on her. He demanded she drive him across town to the Open Door, where he jumped out in the side alley. Luckily, the woman was unhurt, and the man didn’t even rob her.

Waynesville detectives later identified him as a homeless man who drifts between Waynesville and Asheville, but he remains at large.

“What are we going to wait for?” Siewert said.

 

What’s good for the goose

Frog Level merchants feel like the loser in a larger game of triage. A soup kitchen has to go somewhere. The homeless have to congregate somewhere.

But the shop keepers keep returning to a single truth.

“If what was happening down here in Frog Level was happening on Main Street, something would be done,” Siewert said.

Fergenbaum agreed. Main Street merchants would revolt if a roving tribe of homeless people camped out on town sidewalks drinking and smoking all day.

A crowd of merchants brought their concerns to the Waynesville town board last week, explaining what they go through and asking the town to intervene.

Two days later, the Open Door allegedly issued a decree to its regular patrons to stop making a nuisance of themselves to neighbors, at least according to word on the street.

That’s one of the quick fixes merchants were hoping for.

But merchants fear it’s only temporary, if the past is any indication. On and off over the years, merchants have kicked up a fuss, and the Open Door would put pressure on its patrons to behave.

“At times the situation would improve for a short period, but never for long,” Sheppard said.

Ironically, the Open Door prohibits its patrons from hanging out around its own building between meals.

“No loitering in front of building or alley way … violation could subject you to being banned from the Open Door,” reads a large sign on the Open Door building.

Inside the Open Door, the real-time footage from half a dozen video cameras plays on a continuous feed on a computer screen inside the director’s office. Cameras are trained on the street, sidewalk, side alley and back alley, allowing the Open Door to monitor any shenanigans going on outside.

But it simply pushes the shenanigans off on the rest of Frog Level.

Merchants have no legal recourse to stop anyone from loitering in front of their buildings. Loitering, on its face, isn’t a crime. The Open Door can use the unspoken threat of not getting fed to cut down on loitering in front of its own building, however.

“They have a rule that says if you hang out at our building you can’t eat here the next day. Why should that be a rule for just their building?” Wadham asked.

“Why don’t they extend and enforce that policy to all of Frog Level?” Sheppard agreed.

To merchants, the Open Door should accommodate the homeless population it attracts to the community.

“The Open Door is the one that wants to help these people but then we aren’t going to give them a place to use the bathroom? It is ridiculous they have to urinate behind my truck in the alley way. Come on now,” Wadham said. “These are simple things — open a bathroom up so people can use it. This would be a start. We need to get this cleaned up.”

It’s not that Wadham is unsympathetic. Three decades ago, Wadham ran his own halfway house for people getting out of prison. He’s hired the homeless patrons of the Open Door to work in his own business. And when the Open Door first opened over two decades ago, it was Wadham who rented them space.

But he faults the Open Door for allowing a few bad apples to spoil what’s otherwise a critical service.

“There are approximately 80 people that eat there every day. Less than 10 are problem people. Why should they ruin it for the rest of the people who need to be taken care of and helped and the rest of it?” Wadham said. “They shouldn’t. They shouldn’t be allowed to ruin it.”

The handful of miscreants causing problems is equally irksome to the law-abiding patrons of the Open Door.

“This ain’t kindergarten,” said Matthew Brown, a homeless person who eats at the Open Door. “Don’t go peeing on the wall of people’s buildings. I can’t go around and babysit everybody.”

Wadham’s solution: don’t serve people who’ve been drinking.

“If we find out you’ve been drinking you don’t eat. And it stops it. Real simple,” Wadham said.

Unfortunately, those who work with the homeless population know it’s not that simple. For some with severe addictions, they don’t have the wherewithal or constitution to chose between alcohol and food. 

 

Call in the law

Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed is just as disturbed as merchants are with the problems in Frog Level.

“It’s what I call the quality of life crimes — the drunk and disorderly conduct, the drinking in public, the littering,” said Hollingsed.

Waynesville dispatchers have fielded 650 calls from the Frog Level area in the past 18 months — with 110 of those specifically citing the Open Door — and nearly all of them have a similar refrain.

“Intoxicated pedestrian, fight, intoxicated person, vandalism, civil disturbance, emergency overdose, suspicious person, vandalism,” Hollingsed said, ticking down a list of call reports.

Hollingsed is often asked why the police can’t simply arrest people for loitering. Unfortunately for Frog Level merchants, loitering isn’t a crime anymore.

It’s considered discrimination to charge someone with loitering, given the inherent prejudice in deciding which people on a park bench are loitering and must go, versus which are OK and can stay.

“You can’t just go in there and clear them all out,” Hollingsed told merchants when they came to the town meeting last week.

So his officers chip away with the charges they can, like drinking in public, trespassing or causing a civil disturbance. Still, officers have to catch them in the act. They can’t charge someone with a crime simply based in what a witness saw.

“I know it is frustrating for the business owners to sit there watching them suck down a drink, and as we pull up in the Waynesville patrol car they pour it out and there is not a thing we can do,” Hollingsed said. “We know what was in the cup and you know what was in it, but we can’t arrest them for that.”

Even when police do catch them in the act, it still doesn’t do much good.

“The repeat offenders, we have arrested them dozens and dozens of times,” Hollingsed said. “Even if they are being prosecuted for these crimes, it is not going to keep them in jail any length of time.”

But most of the time, the cases don’t even go to court. They nearly all get dismissed — so the offenders have learned the worst that will happen to them is a free ride in a cop car to the magistrate’s office.

That’s not good enough for Hollingsed, however, nor newly elected District Attorney Ashley Welch. They are trying to get creative on how to deal with the repeat offenders.

Someone arrested for drinking in public for the first time is let go with a warning and slap on the wrist, but someone who’s arrested over and over should be subject to a different punishment. That’s what Welch and Hollingsed are trying to figure out.

“We are looking at some sort of a program for the habitual misdemeanant offenders who are committing those quality of life crimes,” Hollingsed said.

The merchants appreciate the proactive policing by Waynesville cops. The police officers have been highly responsive and sympathetic to the environment that’s breeding around them.

But even the cops showing up to arrest people for disorderly behavior is a mixed blessing. When a police car is parked on the curb outside her store putting handcuffs on a belligerent drunk person, Siewert can kiss any sales goodbye.

“Not one person is going to come into our business for that entire length of time, and anyone who does come by and witnesses that isn’t going to come back,” Siewert said.

 

A storied past

Frog Level has always been the gritty side of downtown, the other side of the tracks — literally and figuratively.   

To merchants, it’s the eclectic character that makes Frog Level special.

“I love the nostalgic feeling it evokes. This little area captured my heart,” Siewert said. “While Main Street was cute and nice, Frog Level was less commercial and more interesting to me.”

Most Frog Level merchants prefer the area over Main Street, and not just for the cheaper rent.

“Don’t get me wrong, I like Main Street. When my granddaughter comes to visit we go to Main Street and I play tourist,” said Mel Fergenbaum, owner of Mountain Spirit Wellness. “But here, there is a different energy. It is authentic.”

It’s a fair assessment of the antique shops, art galleries, rummage stores, massage and hair studios, an indie coffee shop and a craft brewery that now occupy Frog Level’s once-vacant storefronts. But the revitalization is a relatively new experiment compared to a decades-old reputation as a seedy hangout, a reputation that pre-dates the Open Door.

Frog Level’s all-time low was when a famed Jerry Springer episode about the life of granny hookers featured footage shot along the district’s sidewalks. That was in the 1990s, and it’s certainly come a long way since.

“The reply we get is ‘Oh it is so much better than it was,’” Siewert said.

That’s not the measure of success to today’s merchants, however. 

Fergenbaum is also tired of hearing how past attempts to deal with the Open Door overflow failed.

“I don’t go by, ‘It didn’t work last year so it won’t work now,’” Fergenbaum said. “Frog Level can’t exist on excuses.”

Still, the merchants in Frog Level don’t want to forsake the past completely. They like the sense of history —a history that hasn’t been spit polished but still bears a semblance of the layers that came before.

Siewert cherishes the old worn lettering on the brick wall in her gallery that reads “leather is better,” the remnants of an old advertisement from a bygone era.

“It takes us back to those days,” Fergenbaum said, imagining the early 1900s when the passenger train rumbled into the now-gone depot daily and Frog Level was filled with butcher shops, shoe shops and general stores.

 

Town response

When merchants appealed to town leaders at an aldermen meeting last week, the response was both lukewarm and mixed.

Mayor Gavin Brown quickly shot down the idea that the town could somehow hold the Open Door’s feet to the fire.

“The first thing that would happen is a discrimination lawsuit would be brought against the town of Waynesville,” Brown said. “We can’t pass an ordinance that singles out people.”

Alderwoman Julia Freeman also defended the Open Door. She challenged the stereotype that those needing help from the Open Door were freeloading transients and trouble-makers.

“These are individuals who are needy in Haywood County,” Freeman said. “As we push out the needy in this community, push them out of Frog Level, push them out of Waynesville, where are they going to go? We have to take care of our citizens in this community.

“The vast majority are good citizens who need food desperately. Are we going to push them out because of the 15 percent who are irreverent and disobedient?” Freeman said.

However, Alderman Gary Caldwell said he understood how the merchants felt and wanted the town to help.

“Don’t go away thinking unpositive. I am definitely on your side, you know, and I am all for keeping an eye on everything,” Caldwell told the merchants.

Brown bristled, however, when merchants suggested they couldn’t co-exist with the Open Door.

“We need the folks from the Open Door to engage in this. It can’t be a one-sided discussion,” Brown told the merchants.

“I agree with that, but they have refused to deal with us anymore,” Wadham replied.

Brown said perhaps the town could act as the mediator and bring both sides to the table.

“If in fact they want to absent themselves from the process that is a different story entirely. Let’s see if we can come up with a solution that is viable,” Brown said.

Wadham said merchants had no choice but to appeal to the town.

“They don’t want to listen to anybody else,” Wadham said.

The Open Door is a charity outreach arm of Long’s Chapel Methodist Church. Until last year, Frog Level merchants were having quarterly meetings with the Open Door director and the leaders of Long Chapel.

But last fall, Long’s Chapel leaders decided they would no longer meet with the merchants.

“It has been determined that further meetings at this time would not accomplish what we would all desire,” Open Door director Perry Hines wrote in an email to Frog Level merchants last fall, serving as the messenger for Long’s Chapel leadership.

There are two versions of just how the communications between merchants and the Open Door disintegrated.

For merchants part, they got frustrated that their concerns weren’t resulting in any changes.

“People looked us in the eye, they promised and they did nothing,” Fergenbaum said.

But to Long’s Chapel’s leadership, it likely seemed that nothing short of moving the Open Door was going to satisfy the merchants.

While the sit-down meetings with Long’s Chapel were called off, Hines said his door is always open — gesturing to the Open Door sign out front — to anyone who wants to come and speak with him anytime.

“I want to be part of the solution,” Hines said. “I would be in favor of anything that doesn’t violate people’s civil rights, that would make our community better and deal with habitual offenders who are hurting the neighborhood.”

In his email to merchants last fall, Hines said he would continue to be available as a liaison.

“Please know there is an ‘Open Door’ to discuss any community concerns, as we all wish for a healthy environment in which to work and live,” Hines wrote.

Hines said he hasn’t heard from merchants lately, and wasn’t aware they were going to the town board to complain until after the fact. 

However, Sheppard said it was pointless to keep going to Hines with the same issues over and over when ultimately, it’s the Long’s Chapel board that has the power to call the shots.

“If the decision makers have cut us off and show no interest in meeting with us, we feel like there is no real avenue for a dialog,” Sheppard said.

Alderman Wells Greeley hopes the town can break the log jam.

“They say they are getting no communication between the Open Door. Well, we can make that happen,” Greeley said. “We can facilitate communication and dialog between the two parties.”

Waynesville Alderman Leroy Roberson said he’d like to see the town help, but doesn’t have any answers yet.

“From what I understand, you can’t just cherry pick people you want to move on to another place. Quite honestly I don’t have an answer for that. You have transients that will just want to sit and drink,” Roberson said.

Roberson suggested the town look into policies in place at other soup kitchens and homeless shelters, since Waynesville certainly isn’t the first community to confront this problem.

Merchants later said if town leaders don’t take a more active role in addressing the problems in Frog Level, it soon won’t matter. The revitalization that’s come this far will fizzle if the merchants can’t make a go of it.

“We just can’t thrive in the current situation,” Siewert said. “What will happen is we will leave and Frog Level will go back to being what it was in the past.”

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