Former prison site holds many possibilities

Jan 21, 2014

Over the years, The Mountaineer has interviewed people from all walks of life, some of whom have struggled with addiction to drugs, alcohol and a life of crime.

But many of them have said the same thing — they wished there was a place in Haywood County that would bring together all the resources they need to get back on their feet and rehabilitate.

With the vision of at least two local nonprofits, this dream could become a reality. County commissioners will soon consider a recent request to lease two modular buildings at the old Hazelwood prison to house a homeless shelter and a halfway house.

The homeless shelter already exists as the Haywood Christian Emergency Shelter, operating only at night during the coldest months of the year. But the board members of the shelter want to transition to a permanent year-round shelter for those who still need housing during warmer months.

The shelter has already changed lives by helping more than 200 previously homeless find and pay for a home. It’s clear they have a model that works and could help even more people if open year-round.

The halfway house will be operated by Next Step Ministry, a Christ-centered nonprofit that focuses on rehabilitating inmates. The halfway house will be a place where inmates can make the transition from jail back into society by getting drug treatment, life skills training, job placement and more.

There is also a chance that the Open Door can get on board by moving its services to the old kitchen at the prison.

If the shelter, halfway house and soup kitchen are all in the same area, it would create a campus of sorts where there is more than food, shelter and resources, but also a sense of community.

While it’s important to put criminals behind bars, it’s even more important to make sure that once they are out of jail they can reform their ways.

Currently, about 65 to 75 percent of those who go to jail in Haywood County end right back up in jail again. The homeless shelter and halfway house is an opportunity that Sheriff Greg Christopher thinks might give ex-offenders a chance at total rehabilitation.

This could be a benefit to the community as a whole. Not only will it get homeless off the streets, but it will help them increase the county’s work force and tax base.

The empty buildings at the old prison facility need occupants and these could be the perfect tenants.

Pastor Nick Honerkamp said it will be a requirement for homeless shelter folks to participate in community service activities, which are plentiful. One of our readers suggested that guests at both the halfway house and homeless shelter volunteer at the nearby animal shelter by helping walk dogs and take care of the cats.

We think plenty of great things can come out of these projects that will help not only those who stay at the shelter and halfway house, but the community as a whole. However, there should be careful thought put into the plans for both organizations to make sure that proper regulations are in place to protect the Hazelwood community, workers and guests at both places.

Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown said the town is very supportive of the ideas. He added that he hopes to see follow-through.

We hope that these two nonprofits can get quick approval so they can begin helping so many others in the county who are in need of a hand up to make it to the “Next Step” in life.

These nonprofits are funded by the support of the public, so it will ultimately be up to us to determine whether these projects succeed and make a difference in the community.