Old prison could get new life

Nonprofits want homeless shelter and halfway house
By DeeAnna Haney | Jan 16, 2014
Patrick McClure, Sheriff Greg Christopher and Rev. Nick Honerkamp stand in front of the building they hope will one day become a homeless shelter.

The old Hazelwood prison could soon be transformed into a homeless shelter and a halfway house if Haywood County commissioners approve a recent proposal by two local nonprofits.

The buildings at the old correctional facility have been vacant since 2011 when the state pulled the plug on funding at the longtime local prison.

There was some discussion early on about using the old facility as extra housing for inmates at the Haywood County Detention Center. But after studies on the building, which was built in the 1920s, it was found the cost to upgrade to stringent state jail standards would be too costly, said Sheriff Greg Christopher.

To make the necessary changes, the county would have had to fork over up to $1.2 million in order to make improvements to the facility, install a commercial sprinkler system and to hire an additional 16 full-time jail employees.

"It was going to be an astronomical cost for us to do this," Christopher said.

But others have come forward with different ideas for the facility.

During a commissioner's work session meeting Tuesday, Rev. Nick Honerkamp, pastor of New Covenant Church in Clyde, proposed moving the local homeless shelter to one of the old prison dormitories.

Honerkamp is president of the board for the Haywood Christian Emergency Shelter, which was founded by local churches in 2008 as the county's first and only homeless shelter. It currently operates at Camp New Life and is open nightly from November through April, but their goal is to be open year-round as a permanent shelter.

In the past five years, the shelter has housed 442 unique individuals, 210 of whom are no longer homeless because of the resources they found at the shelter.

"We help about half of our people not be homeless over the course of that six months. Sometimes that's a ride back to a relative's house, sometimes it's rehab, sometimes it's getting them into a program, but we work really hard with our government agencies to make sure we get them to a safe place where they're not homeless any longer," Honerkamp said.

Few of those who stay at the shelter one season come back again the next.

"We are seeing more temporary homeless now than we've seen in the past," Honerkamp said. "They get evicted and need a couple days to get a deposit to get somewhere or they have a major health issue and need to find a new place to live."

Expanding into a permanent homeless shelter is the next step to meet the needs in the community.

"There are a lot of folks who are homeless during the summer who have nowhere to go," Honerkamp said.

To accomplish this, the shelter will also need to find a new facility because Camp New Life operates as a summer camp. The current director of the shelter, Russ McLamb, will be leaving after this season.

"It looks like we are going to need a new program, a new director and a new facility, which is perfect because we believe this is the time for us to make that move," Honerkamp said.

Halfway house

Another local nonprofit hopes to occupy a second old prison dormitory adjacent to where the homeless shelter would be.

Next Step Ministry is a faith-based organization that reaches out to people who are incarcerated, substance abusers or victims of repeated poor choices. It began in May as the Hands Up Restoration and Transformation, which holds church services at the jail on Sundays.

But it didn't take long for the church members to realize that inmates need more than just Sunday worship, they need help getting back on their feet when they leave jail.

"We are trying to reach those people who need to make a life change so that they can be a contributing member of society," said Patrick McClure, a member of the Next Step Ministry board.

Members of Next Step Ministry have already helped several ex-inmates recover from a life of crime.

"There are so many people in jail who don't understand what's out there to help them," McClure said.

One man wasn't even sure how to begin a job search after his stint in jail, so McClure worked with him.

"He is 43-years old and did not understand how to interview. These are important skills that they need. He couldn't hardly write. I had to help him fill out his application," McClure said.

But a halfway house would help to pull resources and help those who need it most to learn life skills and how to be a contributing member of society.

Those who stay at the halfway house would be enrolled in programs that teach them how to use computers, help the obtain their GED and more.

"When you use the word halfway house, many people relate that to just drug abusers. But the terminology came from the fact that you're halfway — you're out and you're halfway home," McClure said. "That's what Next Step means — it's the next step back into society."

The longterm goal for the halfway house will include men and women, however in the beginning only men will be allowed.

Working together

The homeless shelter and the halfway house would be an effective partnership, said both Honerkamp and McClure.

"We have a lot of duplicate services. We could share security, we could share a director, share the ministry for the rehabilitation programs during the day. A lot of our clients need what their clients need," Honerkamp said.

Local churches, private donations and fundraisers help pay for the shelter's annual budget of about $40,000. More than half of the shelter's expenses, 72 percent, go toward paying the security guard and about 27 percent pays the part-time director. The rest pays for utilities, supplies and insurance.

"We have very little overhead except for personnel," Honerkamp said.

McClure estimates it will cost about $40,000 to bring each building up to proper local building codes and to install sprinkler systems.

"We feel like, based on who we have talked with, is that it's a good possibility once we put our final budget together, is that we may have this covered the day we come out with a proposal," he said.

They also hope to garner interest from the Open Door to possibly move into the kitchen facility that is already on the property. However, the organizations are still in the early stages of discussion when in comes to the involvement of the Open Door.

The sheriff is also committed to the programs, which he believes will help reduce the high amount of repeat offenders ending up in jail again and again.

"Our recidivism rate right now is between 65 and 70 percent. When most of these people leave our jail they have absolutely nowhere to go and if they have somewhere to go, they go right back into the same environment that they were in that got them arrested. We've got to do something to help them," he said.

It costs the county $30 each day to house inmates and as of Tuesday, there were 106 inmates at the jail.

"This right here is really the only thing that I've seen that can help us to turn the tides," Christopher said.

County Commissioner Kevin Ensley said in his past research he's found that the success rate for faith based programs are much higher than secular programs.

"I just want to take the opportunity to say I appreciate the sheriff for having a vision to be talking with these folks because I think that will be some of the payback for our community…" he said.

Other uses

Parts of the facility may also be used for vehicle and equipment storage for Haywood County EMS and Emergency Services. Currently, both departments have vehicles that constantly sit outside, which sometimes poses problems in extreme weather.

"There have been times when we've had to jump vehicles off before we could leave on a call," said Greg Shuping, emergency management director for the county.

Dale Burris, facilities and maintenance director for the county, proposed using one existing building for Waynesville EMS headquarters. Some small buildings, such as the old first aid building, nurse building, laundry building and chapel will be torn down to make room for two climate controlled vehicle bays.

He also suggested building a storage building for large maintenance vehicles. Burris said a feasibility study will still need to be done on the buildings.

The commissioners will discuss the topic at the Feb. 4 meeting.