Haywood native overcomes poverty with local support

By Shelby Harrell Staff Writer | Jul 29, 2013
Photo by: Shelby Harrell George Michael, who previously was homeless in Waynesville for two years, leaves the Grace Church Food Pantry with a backpack filled with food. Michael rides his bicycle from his new apartment in Clyde to the food pantry every Monday.

George Michael doesn’t need much.

For about two years he made do without food, a place to sleep or transportation while he dwelled on the streets of Waynesville struggling with alcoholism.

Today, however, Michael has overcome his addiction and has kicked his negative influences to the curb.

“I’m not going to be shy about it,” Michael said. “I got really bad involved with alcohol. So I went to the VA (Veterans Affairs) and told them I wanted help.”

When Michael, who is a U.S. Navy veteran, reached out to the VA, he was set up with Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD VASH) so he could receive subsidized housing.

However, since the program only offered housing in Buncombe County, Michael became the first to receive HUD VASH housing in Haywood County.

“They transferred everything over to Mountain Projects,” Michael said. “So I was basically like a guinea pig. A lot of veterans in Haywood County don't realize what they've got.”

Mountain Projects Inc. is a community based nonprofit organization geared toward providing vital services to the elderly, disadvantaged and general public in Western North Carolina.

HUD VASH is an organization devoted to preventing and ending homelessness for veterans.

With help from HUD VASH and Mountain Projects, Michael now lives in his own apartment in Clyde and receives food from the Grace Church Food Pantry each week. He rides to town every day on a bicycle that was donated to him.

Michael moved into his apartment 10 months ago after receiving treatment from the VA Hospital in Asheville. He has been off the streets for about a year. He attributes the positive changes in his life to surrounding himself with the right people.

“If it wasn’t for the VA and places like the food bank, I would have a hard time making it,” Michael said. “You have to change the people, places and things that you’re around. I just made a choice to change. That’s the best one you can make.”

Michael, who was born and raised in Waynesville, said one day he just made the decision to change his living situation.

“I lived in the streets of Waynesville for two years, but I got tired of being homeless — especially in the cold,” Michael said.

Michael said life had been difficult for him after he returned from the Navy.

“I came home, got married, had a baby and then got divorced,” he said. “That’s just the way it goes.”

Today, Michael earns money by painting designs on saw blades and selling them for profit, ranging anywhere from $25 to $150, depending on size. He also receives food stamps and a disability check for his knee injuries.

“It came natural to me,” he said about painting the saws. “I found my little niche. If somebody brings me a picture of an old home place, I’ll paint it on it. People can hang them in their house, and they look good.”

While he was homeless, Michael said he slept under bridges and pitched a dome tent all over the city. He said he had slept everywhere between Walmart and the Waynesville Recreation Center.

“I basically kept moving because I had to tear it down or someone would vandalize it or steal it,” he said.

Michael remembers being allowed inside the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office during the winter to sleep in a holding cell to stay warm. He said the kindness and generosity from Haywood County is what keeps him motivated.

“I know everyone in town because I’ve been on the streets,” he said. “I can't go anywhere without seeing someone I know. I consider myself to be pretty well blessed. I’m not rich — but I am in certain ways. People-wise, I am.”

In the fall, Michael plans to participate in Circles of Hope, an organization that helps families get completely out of poverty and builds new systems of support that will help them achieve economic stability.

Michael will become a group “leader” and will have a support system of allies to help him achieve his goals.

Millie Hershenson, Circles of Hope coordinator, encouraged Michael to participate in the program to be more comfortable with his living situation.

“If someone’s in poverty, they don’t know the rules of the middle class,” Hershenson said. “The program helps people learn how to live in a middle class world.”

Circles of Hope is always seeking allies to help support individuals who desire a life free from poverty. Training for Circles of Hope allies is being offered Saturday, Aug. 10 from 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. at Grace Church in the Mountains, located at 394 Haywood Street.

Anyone interested in becoming an ally should RSVP to the training by calling 452-1447 ext. 134 or emailing mhershenson@mountainprojects.org by July 29.

Michael is also hoping to attend Haywood Community College in the fall to take welding and computer courses. With support from the community and the VA, Michael said he feels comfortable about his future.

“I don’t want people to think I’m taking advantage of them,” Michael said. “I’m just putting to use what they’re putting on the table. And I’m happy not to be homeless.”

Michael will continue to sell painted saw blades to help pay the bills. Anyone who is interested in purchasing one should call him at 550-7922.