There were smiles all around at Saturday’s formal dedication of the Haywood Pathways Center, a homeless shelter, halfway house and community kitchen in Hazelwood.
Though the center has been operational for the past 18 months, this month was a time to pay tribute to all the work that went into making the dream possible, plus celebrate what has been accomplished in a relatively short time span.
The faith-based center receives no government funding, but had plenty of government support in its start — help that was widely acknowledged at the dedication.
Speakers thanked Haywood County for allowing the former state prison that the county now owns, to be refurbished for a new purpose — one that liberates rather than incarcerates. They also thanked each municipality in the county, which donated funds to make the prison flip possible.
The center was the vision of Sheriff Greg Christopher, who, shortly after he became sheriff, happened upon two individuals who had been released from the county jail sitting on a nearby curb. He asked them what they planned to do next, and learned they had no place at all to go. The part of the story he doesn’t tell is that he used personal funds to put them up in a motel and help them get back on their feet.
The experience sparked one of those “what if” moments as the sheriff gazed at the long-closed state prison within eyesight of the jail.
What if the buildings could be turned into a halfway house where people like the individuals he recently encountered would have a chance to turn their lives around?
A new concept
Conversations began with those involved with the jail ministry, as well as with leaders at the Haywood Christian Emergency Shelter, which was losing its home that year.
The result was a project that caught the imagination of an entire community, sparking a project that flipped a prison in just eight months.
Saturday was a chance to pay tribute to those who had made the project possible with the dedication of a metal tree of life that had leaves honoring many contributors who had given time or funds to the project.
Christopher told the crowd the Pathways Center had absolutely worked as envisioned.
“In March 2013, the jail was busting at the seams, the jail inspectors had just been here and things just didn’t look good,” he said.
Now that the Pathways Center is open, the jail population, which used to average 130 a day dropped to around 80 or so. Even better news came from examining the recidivism statistics — ones that show how often people return to jail shortly after their release.
“In 12 months, 63 percent of the males and 55 percent of the females
who used the facility have not been back,” Christopher said. “That’s thanks to our Lord Jesus Christ and all of you here today.”
National studies show that within three years of release, about two-thirds (67.8 percent) of released prisoners were rearrested. Of those, more than half (56.7 percent) were arrested by the end of the first year.
This contrasts to the first-year statistics in Haywood that show a recidivism rate of 37 percent for males and 45 percent for females. While it will take more time to know whether the trend is long-term, the crowd of about 100 at the dedication was plenty pleased with the results.
Jeremy Parton, executive director of the program, told the guests that in 2015, 355 individuals had spent one or more nights at the facility, with 169 being in the “emergency” category staying two weeks or less. Of the total number, the center had helped 155 find a job, 73 find permanent housing, facilitated 26 salvations and help 53 reunite with their family.
“That’s significant,” Parton said of the family relationships. “When people come through our doors, almost everyone in their life has given up on them.”
Perry Hines, a pastor, Pathways Center board member and director of the Open Door community kitchen, spoke of the piece of art created by metal sculptor David Burress.
“We’re unveiling this tree as an enduring presence to remember our inauguration,” Hines told the crowd. “You had to believe in is when we had an idea, a concept — when we had a dream. You had faith in us when we didn’t know what we were doing. We thank you for all you have done. … Today we say thank you for helping us kick start this amazing ministry.”