hwpReforming lives on a wing and a prayer

A proposal to convert a closed-down state prison into a halfway house and homeless shelter in Haywood County is gaining steam. The old prison was given to the county two years ago after the state shut it down, but the county has no real use for it. So it’s been sitting there empty, just beyond the backdoor of the county’s own jailhouse. Faith-based groups that regularly counsel and minister to inmates in the jail have come up with a plan to convert a section of the old prison into a halfway house — a place where recently released inmates can be reformed and remade upon release from jail.

“Most people who leave our jail have absolutely no where to go. Even if they do have somewhere to go, it is right back into the same environment they were in when they got arrested,” Haywood Sheriff Greg Christopher said. The recidivism rate among inmates is high, with the same people landing back in jail again and again. “This is the only thing I have seen that I would put faith in whatsoever that could help us start turning the tide,” Christopher said. The proposal has three moving parts. Each is separate in a sense — three separate religious groups would have their own separate leases for different buildings on the prison campus. Yet their efforts are interconnected.

• A halfway house in one of the old prison dorms would help people trying to turn their lives around. The program would be run by Next Steps Ministry, but would get financial and volunteer support from partnering churches countywide.
• A homeless shelter in another one of the old prison dorms would replace an existing shelter that operates out of a summer camp. Moving to the old prison site would allow the Haywood Christian
Emergency Shelter to operate year-round instead of during winter months only. The shelter is a joint mission of several partnering churches in the county.
• The kitchen at the old prison is considered an ideal site for a soup kitchen, providing the meals that the homeless shelter and half-way house would certainly need. There’s a chance the Open Door Soup Kitchen in Waynesville, an outreach ministry of Long’s Chapel, could relocate at the site.

Proposals for the homeless shelter and halfway house were made to county commissioners last week by the respective church groups. County leaders must decide whether to grant them free use of the old prison buildings for the noble cause. The initial response from commissioners was positive.  “I think this is something that will pay back for our society,” said Commissioner Kevin Ensley.
Assuming the county signs off, the only hurdle will be funding. The faith-based groups behind the proposal would need a chunk of change upfront to renovate the old prison dorms. They would also need a sustained revenue stream for operations.

Estimates of what it will take are still being calculated. But the visionaries who made the proposal believe churches throughout the county will support the mission. “The churches seem truly interested in providing funds,” said Jason Ledford, the president of Next Steps. Churches will also provide an army of volunteers to counsel and support the people trying to turn their lives around.
“They are interested in volunteering, coming in and helping them and propagating the things they need to change in their life,” Ledford said.

Next Steps Ministry has amassed a broad support network already for its current outreach efforts with the jail population, from giving people rides to job interviews to holding donation drives for toiletry items.

Ledford believes a halfway house could be a game changer for people who want to turn their lives around but simply don’t know how. “They are getting out of the jail, coming out to the curb, the same people pick them up and it is the same old endless cycle,” said Patrick McClure, who works with jail inmates through Next Steps ministry. “We are trying to reach those people and help them make a life change so they can be a contributing member of society.”

Next Steps Ministry began a counseling program with willing inmates in the jail last summer. The group started small, by simply holding church services for the jail inmates. “The next thing we noticed was people asking us for help, long-term help. Finding a job or whatever it was. There are people in there who say ‘Help me,”” McClure said.

Ledford emphasized that the halfway house would not be a permanent living arrangement for people. “We can say, ‘If you want to stay here for six months while we get the things in your life changed, you can,’” Ledford said.

“Next Step means the next step to reenter society,” McClure added. The county certainly stands to gain if the program is successful. Each person who gets reformed instead of returning to jail will
save the county money — about $30 per person per night for an inmate’s room and board, not to mention medical care of inmates.

“If we can stop that, that is a direct savings — dollars that can be spent somewhere else,” McClure said.

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