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Homeless in Haywood: Facts, fantasies, half-truths and hogwash

When she showed up at Haywood Pathways Center, the woman and her young daughter had been homeless for three years. After three months’ residence in the new women and children’s dorm, the pair recently became the first family to leave it for a home of their own. 

“We got them into in-home counseling so they could work on their relationship, and continued mental health and addiction treatment,” said Mandy Haithcox, executive director of Pathways. “They got connected with a couple of different churches so they have some positive support networks that they didn’t have before, and we connected them with a voucher program that got them the ability to have a house.”

That’s what Pathways does — provides a temporary landing spot and addresses the physical, mental, spiritual, financial and bureaucratic obstacles preventing some people in our community from living productive, peaceful lives and remaining free from the vicious cycle of incarceration that costs taxpayers almost $80 per person, per night. 

Much, though, has been said of late about what Pathways, Open Door Ministry and community organizations like them supposedly do. Or don’t do.

This being an election year a series of anecdotes, claims and queries have swirled about social media questioning the role of these organizations, and the effects they may have on the county as a whole.

Several claims in particular seem to be shouted the loudest — which doesn’t necessarily mean they’re true — so in an effort to enrich the discussion with facts, figures and faces, here’s a quick look at those claims, what might be behind them and what’s actually “fake news.”

Because Facebook seems to be driving the discussion, each of these claims is accompanied by a handy Facebook emoji, to make comprehension quick and easy. 

 

emoji sadLately it seems that there are more people in our community who appear homeless.

If Pathways was the full measure of homelessness and hunger in Haywood County — it’s not — this claim appears to be true. Still, Pathways does serve as a solid indicator of need in Haywood County. 

According to stats provided by Pathways, in 2017 the nonprofit provided more than 7,000 person-nights of shelter. In 2018, that grew to more than 17,000 nights. At the time, there were 36 beds for men and 24 for women in two separate dorms. 

Through September of 2019, Pathways had already surpassed 14,000 nights, without data from the last three cold months of the year when numbers tend to climb. Even at the current rate, Pathways will probably have provided around 10 percent more nights of shelter in 2019 than in 2018. 

The addition of the new women and children’s dorm this past June, with a capacity of around 36, certainly adds to those numbers, but the fact that it’s not going unused and has already “graduated” at least one family to independent living means the need is there. A dedicated space for women and children is indeed a rare commodity in Western North Carolina, and is as much the result of poverty, drug addiction and mental illness as it is domestic violence. 

“This year, we’ve gotten to a point where we were full in the beginning of October,” Haithcox said. “That didn’t happen last year until probably December. So it’s happening sooner.”

Mental health and drug issues are obviously to blame for much of the problem, but so is the county’s ongoing affordable housing crisis. 

“We’ve had several folks who have lost housing and have nowhere to move to,” she said. “A handful of those folks are people who rented a place without a lease and then the landlord said, ‘You’ve got to go.’ There’s nowhere to go.” 

 

emoji madEvery person who appears homeless is somehow affiliated with Pathways. 

It’s 8 p.m. in Canton and a person clearly suffering from mental issues is causing trouble? Pathways. Used syringes in a Soco Mountain scenic overlook parking lot? Pathways. Saturday morning in Frog Level and someone gets stabbed? Pathways. Homeless camp on Richland Creek? Pathways. Pre-dawn breaking and entering at Central Elementary? Pathways. Right? 

Wrong. Pathways isn’t just a temporary shelter, it’s a Christ-centered multi-week program. Residents can stay up to six or seven months if they follow the rules, help with chores and make active progress towards rectifying whatever situations left them with no better option than a homeless shelter. 

The goal at Pathways isn’t getting people in — it’s getting them out. 

The first requirement for admittance is an eight-panel drug and alcohol screen. Although some exceptions are made for THC because it remains in the body longer, people who test positive for other drugs or who show up visibly intoxicated aren’t admitted. Nor are sex offenders. 

Random drug testing continues throughout a resident’s time at Pathways, and violations hold consequences up to and including dismissal from the facility. Residents must also work toward acquiring jobs and pay a nominal fee for their stay.

But those malingerers people seem to complain about the most? 

Not Pathways. Not even close. People have been banned from the facility in the past for violating the rules, and previous reportage in The Smoky Mountain News — coupled with testimonies from law enforcement, social services and elected officials — indicate there is a population of people who are “service resistant,” for whatever reason. They don’t want help, they don’t think they need help or they can’t stop using drugs long enough to get help. 

“Our curfew is 5:30 p.m. every day, seven days a week, and the only reason you can be out after that is if you’re at work and we have your work schedule,” said Haithcox. “A lot of people really just think that we’re here for shelter and a meal and good luck to you for the rest of the day, but it’s really not that kind of shelter at all.”

There is, however, one significant deviation from the policy. It’s called cold grace, and it happens any time the temperature drops below 32 degrees. 

“For cold grace, we don’t really do drug screens because it’s really just about not freezing to death,” Haitcox said. “As long as you aren’t a threat to yourself or to other people, you can come in.” 

Cold grace stays are usually brief. Last year Pathways provided roughly 320 person-nights of shelter for cold grace, compared to more than 17,000 nights in the stringent residency program. 

 

emoji surprisedWaynesville is listed on a website as a good place to be homeless. 

Another persistent claim is that somewhere, out there, on the internet, is a website that specifically directs people of limited means to pick up and make their way to Waynesville. 

While it’s nearly impossible to prove something does not exist — see “Bertrand Russell’s teapot” — no one has been able to find such a website or online article directing homeless people to Haywood County. 

“Yeah, I’ve never seen it and I’ve spent a lot of time looking for it,” Haithcox said. “Now, there are general shelter directories where people copy and paste your info right from your web page, but I have never been able to find this website that says we’re the best place to be homeless.”

Research conducted by SMN says that there are no good places to be homeless, but with the internet as a guide, the “best” cities to be homeless in are those with a far more temperate climate than this mountainous region of Southern Appalachia, or larger cities with far more services than Haywood County can provide, like bigger shelters and public transportation. 

Based on those two factors, websites consistently name Austin, Berkeley, Boston, Key West, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., as the finest environs for the nation’s more discerning members of the underclass. 

 

emoji madLaw enforcement agencies from other counties deliver the needy to the Open Door, or to Pathways, by the busload. 

Yet another persistent rumor that by testimonial appears false and by logic appears improbable is that municipal governments or law enforcement agencies round people up, herd them into vans, and remove them from their jurisdictions just to be rid of them. 

“I’ve heard the rumor,” Haithcox said. “I’ve never seen it happen.”

Haithcox added that she’d never seen a van pull up to Pathways and drop off a group of people from inside or outside Haywood County, and that she’d never learned from a resident that they’d been dumped in Haywood County to fend for themselves, only to find Pathways. 

The same rumor has been leveled at Frog Level — vans drop them off. Cops bring them from other counties. Just to be rid of them. 

 

fr homeless1

 

“I cannot speak to incidents of surrounding county law enforcement agencies ‘dropping off’ individuals in Haywood County for the sole purpose of utilizing Pathways,” Sheriff Greg Christopher said. “I can tell you, however, this particular rumor has led me to have conversations with several nearby law enforcement agencies to make sure this does not happen.”

Not only will it not happen, but Christopher said he’s not aware of it ever happening. 

“As to another rumor that has circulated for the last three years, there has not been an eyewitness I have found or spoken to who actually saw a Georgia State Prison bus dropping off someone at Pathways,” he said. “If that was to ever occur, I would immediately address the issue or contact the appropriate agency head within the jurisdiction to address the issue.”

Even the thought of shuffling troublemakers from city to city or county to county seems preposterous — akin to a reverse trade war, unbridled banishments would result in retaliation from other jurisdictions. Buncombe County will see our six, and raise us 66. Swain sends Haywood three, Haywood sends Swain 13. The only person who benefits from all that is the gas station owner. 

Some of the confusion may stem from busing — many local churches offer to pick up and drop off worshippers, no matter their locale, and Pathways used to coordinate such pickups for its residents. 

Those transport trips had nothing to do with people who hadn’t already passed Pathways’ screening process and adhered to its rigorous rulebook, but they ended about a year ago because logistical challenges warranted on-campus services.

 

emoji madPeople are drawn to Pathways but aren’t immediately accepted and end up hanging around waiting to get in, causing trouble. 

During pleasant summer months, Pathways only runs at about 75 percent capacity because it’s neither unbearable nor deadly to sleep outside, as it can sometimes be in this, the highest county east of the Mississippi River. 

During the winter, the occupancy rate rises above 90 percent. Pathways isn’t always full but when it is, it’s only full for a few days as people cycle in and cycle out. 

“Even if we’re completely full, that only lasts one or two nights. So they’re not waiting three months,” Haithcox said. “If someone’s already a resident of Haywood County and they’re waiting for shelter, they’re not waiting 90 days.”

 

emoji mademoji madMy tax dollars are being used to draw the homeless and the hungry to Haywood County. 

Right now, Pathways operates on a budget of about $650,000 a year. 

“It’s mostly staffing costs,” said Haithcox. “We employ 20 people now — 13 are full time and seven are part time.”

Last year and in preceding years the budget was on the order of about $400,000, but with the addition of the new women and children’s dorm, costs have increased in line with expanded capacity, so the budget remains relatively flat, pound for pound. 

“Generally, churches are about 30 percent of that, individuals are about 30 percent and businesses are about 10 to 20 percent,” Haithcox said of Pathways’ funding streams. “The rest is grants and random.”

Historically, Pathways receives a $4,000 special appropriation from the Town of Waynesville, as do other area nonprofits in varying amounts. The contribution accounts for about two-thirds of 1 percent of Pathways’ annual budget and as such funds operations for exactly 2.25 days a year. 

That $4,000 appropriation also represents .012 percent of the town’s $33 million budget for 2019. 

To answer the question of how much of your taxes help support Pathways, if you live within Waynesville town limits and own a home assessed at the county’s median price of $139,700, you pay almost 7 cents a month. 

If you live anywhere else in Haywood County, you pay even less than that — nothing. 

 

emoji surprisedThe homeless and the hungry are drawn to Waynesville from outside the county because of the generous services provided by Pathways and the Open Door. 

This may be one of the most controversial claims made, but relevant data suggests it’s probably not true. 

In addition to the chores and the curfew and the rules and the sobriety requirements at Pathways, there’s also a residency requirement. 

“The mission of the Pathways Center is focused on serving those who live in Haywood County,” said Sheriff Christopher, who with a coalition of community organizations turned the disused prison into Pathways back in 2014. “My specific mission has been and continues to be helping those who come directly from the detention center to the Pathways Center and are in need of assistance and help, which will hopefully keep them from reoffending and being arrested again.”

Christopher’s anti-recidivism experiment has been successful. Before Pathways opened he told SMN that general recidivism in the detention center was above 80 percent. In 2016, those released from detention into Pathways reoffended at only half that rate. 

To maintain Christopher’s local focus, Pathways has a policy that requires residency in Haywood County for at least 90 days prior to admission. 

“It’s cut and dry except it’s not,” Haithcox said. “To the best of our ability, we try to make sure that people who are staying with us are from Haywood County in the sense that even if they weren’t born here, they have some sort of established presence here.”

That’s a complex proposition when dealing with a service population that by definition doesn’t really have a permanent address. 

“First, what we’ll do is ask for an ID,” she said. “Most people have an ID of some sort. We’ll look to see when it was issued, so even if it says Haywood County but was issued in September and this is October, then clearly you’ve not been here.”

Absent an ID, there are still ways in which potential Pathways residents can establish that 90-day residency — a piece of mail, or documentation by a social service agency, or even an independent verification. 

“We had somebody working at a fast food restaurant for six months living in their car, so they didn’t have any way to prove it,” said Haithcox. “We talked to their employer."

Cut and dry but not — Pathways data from 2018 shows that 78 percent of residents in the program were from Haywood County, not counting the cold grace program, which in addition to dropping drug screens in favor of saving lives also drops residency requirements. 

Haithcox has a good reason for why that 78 percent will probably never be 100 percent. 

“If somebody shows up and it’s someone who is cognitively impaired and it’s not going to be safe for them to be out on the street and they can’t take care of themselves and they’re not from here, it’s not the right thing to do to push them out,” she said. “Our goal then would be, stay here and let us figure out how to get you to where you need to be.”

In addition to the 78 percent of Haywood residents who stayed at Pathways in 2018, another 15 percent were from within the State of North Carolina, and 7 percent were from other states. 

Of that 78 percent native population, 17 percent of it came from Canton, 14 percent came from Clyde, 6 percent came from Maggie Valley, 1 percent from Lake Junaluska, and the remainder — more than 60 percent — came from Waynesville. 

Through Oct. 15 of this year, the percentage of Haywood residents had risen dramatically to 93 percent. 

“We’ve tightened up our policy in a couple of different ways,” said Haithcox. “When we get referrals from hospitals and treatment centers, we make sure on the front end before they show up that we’ve spoken with the referring entity to find out if they are Haywood County residents or not.”

Above and beyond the 93 percent of Pathways residents who are from Haywood County, 5 percent were from within North Carolina and just 2 percent were from other states. 

During that same time frame, Canton’s share of Pathways residents climbed from 17 to 22 percent. So did Clyde’s, from 14 to 16 percent. Maggie Valley dropped from 6 to 5 percent, and Waynesville declined to 57 percent. 

Although the Open Door is a separate entity from Pathways, they see the same clientele and complement each other in a way that makes them nearly inseparable. Anything that’s been said about Pathways has also been said about the Open Door, including that their reputations draw people from far and wide. 

 

fr homeless2

 

On the morning of Sunday, Oct. 20, just 24 hours after a domestic dispute between a Waynesville couple led to a Frog Level stabbing during one of Waynesville’s biggest festivals, SMN went to the Open Door and interviewed every single diner, asking one simple question — how long have you been in Haywood County?

Of the 21, 10 of them were born and bred Haywood County natives. Of the 11 who were not originally from here, the average length of their residency was 19.4 years. 

They arrived in 1965, and in 1981. In 1992, and 1994. In 2000, and 2005 and 2006. In 2017, and 2018, and 2019.

The 2017 gal just wandered here, but is from the region anyhow. The 2018 guy came here from Atlanta, because his sister brought him. The 2019 guy who’s been here four months came because he fell in love with one of the born and bred. 

Another one of those born and bred, a mid-40ish white male we’ll call Stanley, has suffered from a mental disability all his life. He isn’t homeless, and said he’s getting enough therapy and medication, but his disability checks aren’t enough to make ends meet.

“I don’t have any money for food,” he replied when asked why he was in the Open Door that Sunday, enjoying a plate of green beans, rice and fried chicken donated by Kentucky’s finest Colonel. 

Stanley had heard the rumors too, about the vans and the “outsiders” and the notion that the Open Door and Pathways — where he also regularly eats — were drawing people to the area. He told SMN they’re not true, and he also told SMN what would happen if either of them suddenly ceased to exist. 

“I’d probably starve to death.”

Editor’s note: The first person who can provide irrefutable evidence of a website (not a shelter guide, not a random comment in a thread by some unidentified source, but an actual publication specifically naming Waynesville) directing homeless people to Haywood County or provide evidence of a Pathways convoy will see a $100 donation made in their name to the social service agency of their choice, by SMN.

 

Community forum

Following a stabbing incident in Frog Level on Oct. 18, Frog Level Brewing will host a public forum to talk about community issues including but not limited to homelessness and hunger. The event is free and open to the public. FLB owner Clark Williams said all Waynesville candidates said they’d attend. The forum will be moderated by SMN Staff Writer Cory Vaillancourt. 

• Date: Tuesday, Oct. 29

• Time: 6:30 p.m.

• Location: Frog Level Brewing 56 Commerce Street, Waynesville

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