Support is high for tackling poverty in Haywood

By Vicki Hyatt | Mar 20, 2014

A Tuesday meeting laced with phrases such as “from homelessness to home ownership,” or “divine opportunity for change,” and even “there’s plenty of food — we have a distribution problem” has sparked a renewed community effort to tackle poverty.

The meeting, held at the Haywood County Senior Resource Center, brought together individuals from faith, education, government and nonprofit communities where a “problem-solving, let’s work together” mindset clearly was the catch phrase of the day.

“We have people here from every walk of life,” said Mountain Projects Executive Director Patsy Dowling, who called the meeting along with the Rev. Nick Honerkamp of New Covenant Church. “People here today care about basic human needs.”

As someone who has worked with poverty issues for more than two decades, Dowling said unless basic needs are met — such as food, heat and shelter — there is a downward spiral in the community.

“One client told me the only reason he would ever steal is to feed his family,” she said. “Haywood County is one of the most remarkable places in this country. If we all work together, we will meet those needs.”

An underlying theme of the meeting was addressing root issues that cause poverty — including individuals who have been in prison.

Haywood County Sheriff Greg Christopher addressed the crowd of nearly 100, saying that between 80 and 90 percent of those in jail had addiction problems of some kind. When he took office about a year ago, between 80 and 85 percent of inmates returned to jail.

He decided something needed to be done after visiting with two inmates who were released from jail and simply sat down on the sidewalk outside the prison because they had no place to go and no one to call.

Christopher opened the jail seven days a week to those in the jail ministry — individuals who have also helped mentor the prisoners upon their release. The program has already reduced recidivism to 50 percent, he said, and has the potential to drop it even farther over time.

The stakes are not only improved lives for those who have lost their way, but also a savings to taxpayers, who would no longer need to pay the $30 a day it takes to keep an inmate in jail or reduce the $13,000 monthly bills to pay for inmate healthcare needs, or otherwise reduce the overall $2.4 million detention center budget.

An idea that is nearly ready to implement involves using part of the former state prison property as a place for temporary shelter for those without homes, or who need a place to stay upon release from jail.

The tentative plans to reuse the former Department of Corrections (DOC) facility is one Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown suggested be called Divine Opportunity for Change.

Honerkamp emphasized that the campus would not be a permanent safety net, but the means to a permanent life change.

During the discussion, Patricia Smith, who leads the Haywood Community College career readiness department, asked if statistics were collected on the education levels of those being served by the organizations in the room.

“One of the steps to bring people out of poverty is through education and training,” she said, suggesting the college as a place where that could happen.

Lisa Frady, who is a veteran starting a veteran-related business in the county and Col. Jim Coning said there are funds available through a national initiative to address poverty and homelessness issues being faced by today’s veterans.

John Franco with the Waynesville Kiwanis Club suggested the child-focused emphasis of the organization could plug into the solutions forged by the group, and Jim Geenan with Haywood Gleaners noted there are plenty of opportunities through the Society of St. Andrews that can provide not only meaningful work, but food for those without.

Contact information was gathered from those present and an email will be sent out asking for subcommittee volunteers in the areas of 1) housing, 2) the DOC homeless/temporary housing effort 3) fundraising, especially through social enterprise efforts and 4) technology, which would provide a way to devise a central portal where service agencies could find out which group or agency has resources available for a certain situation.

After the meeting, many lingered to visit with others about ways to work together to meet needs.

Both Dowling and Honerkamp called the meeting a great success and said they are anxious to capture the energy that filled the room Tuesday.

Plans call for another general meeting in several months where the subcommittee spokespersons will report back on their findings and suggestions.

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