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Wintry weather tests regional response to those seeking shelter from the storm

Haywood County officials opened an emergency shelter on Paragon Parkway during Winter Storm Diego. Cory Vaillancourt photo Haywood County officials opened an emergency shelter on Paragon Parkway during Winter Storm Diego. Cory Vaillancourt photo

As many residents of Southern Appalachia stocked up on necessaries in advance of a powerful winter storm that ended up leaving thousands without power, governments and nonprofits across the region scrambled to open shelters and warming stations that wound up being, for some, more of a necessity than milk and bread. 

“We decided to open the shelter after monitoring the power outages and calls for assistance,” said Ira Dove, director of the Haywood County Department of Health and Human Services. “We’ve had the emergency shelter open continuously since 2:37 a.m. on Saturday, and people began arriving not long after.”

Dove said that by the evening of Sunday, Dec. 9, more than 45 people had shown up at the Paragon Parkway shelter for coffee, food, snacks, water, cots, blankets and warmth. 

It’s not the first time the county has had to open the shelter, but it’s by far the most use it’s seen, going back to at least 2012, according to Dove. 

Dangerous road conditions weren’t even an obstacle during the two-day storm that dropped as much as 16 inches of snow in parts of the county.

“Emergency services and fire services have been bringing people in,” Dove said. “A big thank you to a lot of our partners in emergency services, law enforcement and the Red Cross. Our school system stood ready as a partner, too.”

Not everyone was as lucky as those in Haywood County, however — especially the homeless. 

Stephanie Almeida runs Full Circle Recovery Center in Franklin, but as the storm approached late last week, she was frantically trying to arrange warming stations and overnight shelter for the needy in Macon County.

“I see a lot of folks that are very vulnerable, couch surfing or living in their car,” Almeida said. “They need a shelter. We need a permanent shelter for those folks who are vulnerable. Macon County used to have a group of churches that alternated, but that doesn’t happen anymore.”

One problem with ministering to the homeless is that in rural areas like Western North Carolina, it’s often difficult to tell how many homeless people are actually around at any given time. 

“I don’t know that we have a handle on how many homeless we have,” said Franklin Mayor Bob Scott. “You see it in urban settings, like tent cities, but we don’t have anything like that. People are good about looking out for each other. We tend to care for people out here, and if someone doesn’t hear from you, they’ll come looking for you.”

Almedia said she’d contacted town and county officials about opening a shelter or even using a county-owned building to provide similar services to what Haywood County offered, but got nowhere with her request.

“The biggest issue right now is the temperature,” she said, days before the storm began. “It was 19 degrees this morning when I came out to my vehicle. I think the issue is that we have the ability, and there is a plan in place for the county on how to begin the process to start a shelter. The barrier is getting the county to start the paperwork, for commissioners to start the process. Resources are in place, workers have been trained.”

Macon County Manager Derek Roland said via email Dec. 7 that the county was preparing for the storm, but mentioned nothing about opening a shelter. 

“As with each and every forecasted weather event, this organization stands prepared to take any and all action necessary to ensure that our citizens remain safe in the event of a disaster,” said Roland. “The first step in this process is preparation. Our emergency management department has contacted the American Red Cross to notify them we will be monitoring this event closely, therefore to remain on standby.”  

The storm was first discussed during the Dec. 3 Macon County Commission meeting, at which information was distributed on resources available to those in need; a Dec. 4 story in the Franklin Press provided even more info, and Macon County joined Haywood and others in issuing a declaration of emergency on Dec. 9. 

That wasn’t quite enough for Almedia, who created a Facebook group and began collecting supplies and recruiting volunteers, even opening the Georgia Road offices of Full Circle as an ersatz warming station. 

“Many churches are reaching out to individuals through their congregations to let them know their resources are available should a need arise,” Roland said. “Other groups have also been helping prepare through the distribution of coats, sleeping bags, etc. in advance of the forecasted event.”

One of those organizations mentioned by Roland was Macon New Beginnings, a nonprofit established in 2015 to help the local homeless; Almedia said that as of Sunday no shelters had been opened in Macon County, but Macon New Beginnings was able to pay for a hotel room for a family with an infant as well as a room for a homeless person. Macon County Department of Social Services was also available to do the same thing, she said. 

A release from Macon County Schools, however, said that in the event of power outages, the schools “have a goal to provide children who may not have access to electricity at home a heated building, hot food and possibly a shower.”

Almedia blasted the release, saying, “Even the schools acknowledge our families need heat. I’m so ashamed of our leadership and their lack of response with a warming station or shelter.”

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