It was a blur of people and places and things and ideas, and walking and working and thinking and sweating. It was nouns and verbs mostly, like anything else, but when I walked down my Maggie Valley driveway into star-dappled darkness shortly after midnight on Thursday, Nov. 23, 2017, I became homeless in Haywood County. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t fun, but it was the only way I felt I could get the real story on the resources available (or unavailable, as the case may be) to those thrust into the all-too-common circumstance of homelessness.
A year later, the economy’s roaring, profits are soaring and unemployment is shockingly low — perhaps because one needs two or more jobs to afford housing in much of the United States, including Western North Carolina.
A year later, the paycheck-to-paycheck poor are still just one minor disaster away from falling into a vicious cycle that imposes great moral and financial burdens on us all.
A year later I retraced my journey, and learned the situation has grown much, much worse.
I’d gotten the idea to go undercover as a homeless person from a book I read years ago called Nickeled and Dimed: On not getting by in America by Barbara Ehrenreich; in it she assumed the role of an unskilled worker fleeing her home and accepting whatever work she could find, from Maine to Minnesota, from Walmart to waitressing.
She slept in dumpy residential motels and tin-can trailer parks whilst bearing witness to a minimum wage America longingly eyeballing prosperity as though it was some sort of steam-powered aeroplane chugging along not very fast just above the treetops, yet still forever out of reach.
I’d told nearly no one about my plans, with the first exception being mom and the second being Smoky Mountain News Publisher Scott McLeod, both in case I unexpectedly ended up on a slab or in a cell. My News Editor, Jessi Stone, and other colleagues had no idea. Loose lips, you know. I grew a horrible beard weeks beforehand, and shaved my head. I even went so far as to take a week’s paid vacation so that my absence wouldn’t be noticed.
Other journalists have embarked on similar endeavors, including Erie Times-News reporter Kevin Flowers, who went “full homeless” in much more brutal weather conditions than I did. Flowers, however, had the relative luxury of doing so in an urban environment, where resources are more centralized.
Which is what makes these kinds of stories relevant. They’re always different, everywhere you go. An environment like Haywood County presents its own unique set of challenges, the first of which slapped me in the face as I stepped out my door.
It was 34 degrees and I had only a pen, a notepad, my iPhone and a charger; I’d imagined an unforeseen domestic incident led to my unexpected ouster and with nobody to lean on, nowhere to go and no one to call, I had no choice but to walk. Uber’s barely a thing here, taxicabs are still rare and the lack of public transportation effectively throttles not just physical but also economic mobility.
After making the many miles from Maggie to Waynesville, I eventually ended up at a kitchen in Frog Level called The Open Door, early on Thanksgiving afternoon.
It would be longtime Executive Director Perry Hines’ last year at The Open Door, which derives about 70 percent of its annual $250,000 budget from its thrift shop next door; new Executive Director Tom Owens, who has been on the job for about six months, has been charged with bringing the Frog Level fixture into a new era.
“What we’re doing right now is setting a foundation for growth by telling our story in the community,” said Owens. “That’s one of the things that I’ve been very aggressive about, doing what I can to find speaking engagements, to talk to community leaders, to tell our story.”
From the Open Door I was directed to Pathways, a former minimum-security prison transformed into a 60-bed shelter for men and women. Envisioned by Haywood County Sheriff Greg Christopher and a host of community organizations as a tool designed to reduce recidivism, Pathways is the only shelter west of Ashville and east of Murphy.
“Our big goal is to help people break cycles and build new foundations,” said Executive Director Mandy Haithcox. “We really feel like we can do that when we all work together as a community to holistically say, ‘You’re a person, how can we help you realize the future that you want to have, which is not this.’”
The new women and children’s dorm at Pathways should be open in January. Cory Vaillancourt photo
To that end, Pathways is about to fill a major gap in the system; the segregated men’s and women’s dorms at Pathways currently do not allow for children, so homeless women with families still have nowhere to go, for now.
“This isn’t going to solve the whole problem,” said Haithcox of the new $550,000 women and children’s dorm that should open by January, “but at least will help us put a dent, one family at a time, into that problem.”
The 5,500-square-foot two-story modular building has 10 rooms and can hold up to 36 people; each floor features a shared kitchen and laundry facilities, and the second floor will house a computer lab provided by Rotarians from Western Carolina University and named in honor of late Chancellor David Belcher.
Once it’s open and every bed at Pathways is full, there will be about 100 people staying there.
The next stop on my journey was the Canton Community Kitchen on Pisgah Drive. Since 2006, Community Kitchen has doled out around 50 meals a night, every night on an annual budget of about $100,000. When I met Pastor Chris Jennings afterward, he said that the organization was in the midst of a massive expansion that he now hopes will be completed shortly into the new year.
“For one, we’re going from 1,100 square feet to 7,000 square feet,” Jennings said of the new location on Champion Drive. “We’ll have two designated classroom spaces, a shower and laundry in the building, and we’ll have computers set up in the classrooms. Every application you fill out now is online, so people can come in, use the computers, fill out job applications, and if they get an interview they can wash their clothes, take a shower and go to their interview.”
Executive Director Allison Jennings said the building is already home to a Narcotics Anonymous group that runs about 30 strong, and through a partnership with Haywood Community College would soon offer GED classes.
At the outset I told you that the situation had become much, much worse. You’re probably wondering why, since I’ve since told you about a slew of improvements to the social safety net that once supported me, however briefly.
But that is the downside — Pathways didn’t raise nigh on to six-tenths of a million bucks from a place of plenty, and the Canton Community Kitchen isn’t expanding due to lack of want.
“I do not think needs are declining,” said Patsy Davis, executive director of local social service agency Mountain Projects. As such, Davis is about as tuned-in to the pulse of poverty as anyone in the region.
She was also one of the few locals who knew of my intentions beforehand. She told me not to wear good shoes, because if you are living out-of-doors and you come upon some money, the first thing you do is take care of your shoes. I lost two toenails to that bit of wisdom, but she was right.
For a few years now, Mountain Projects has been running an on-demand public transportation system, the first of its kind in the county. It offers low fares, but limited hours and must be scheduled in advance. It’s subsidized by county government.
A regularly circulating route isn’t yet available (see Transportation, above) meaning toenails and turmoil can effectively prevent people from accessing the services they need as well as the employment opportunities they want, but it also means the homeless and hungry in Haywood County remain compartmentalized in Canton and in Waynesville.
Lemonade from lemons, though, means monitoring the population and the need is fairly apples to apples.
“So far in 2018 we’ve provided over 14,000 nights of shelter, compared to 7,622 in 2017,” said Haithcox. Over that same period of time, Pathways has served more than 35,000 meals, compared to 28,448 in all of 2017.
“Our shelters now from the last time when you were here, we usually would have an open bed, if not five or six,” she said. “For the last three or four months, all of our beds have been filled every single night.”
The situation isn’t much different at The Open Door.
“As far as our numbers go, we’re feeding more people than we were last year,” said Owens. “We’re providing more food boxes than we were last year, so while the economy as a whole is on the rise, those most underserved — those who have been living in poverty for a while — haven’t seen the trickle down of that effect.”
Although The Open Door actually served fewer meals in 2017 — 28,488, compared to 34,467 in 2016 — they’ve seen strong demand for food boxes from just over 1,200 in 2016 to more than 1,500 in 2017.
At the Canton Community Kitchen, Allison Jennings said demand for almost everything is up.
“It has not decreased,” Jennings said. “We’ve not seen a change. It goes up and down, and we have no reason or rhyme [except that] homelessness has increased.”
Increased — as it had the year before, and the year before that, ensuring that the three-day journey I started out on last Thanksgiving will continue for at least another year, and probably years after that.
Read the original story here.
Help for the holidays
• Mail: 32 Commerce St., Waynesville, NC 28786
• Phone: 828.452.3846
• Online: www.opendoor-waynesville.org
• Mail: 179 Hemlock Street, Waynesville, NC 28786
• Phone: 828.246.0332
• Online: www.haywoodpathwayscenter.org
• Mail: P.O. Box 513, Canton NC 28716.
• Phone: 828.648.0014
• Online: www.facebook.com/CantonTCK