A year ago, Smoky Mountain News Staff Writer Cory Vaillancourt went homeless for three nights over the Thanksgiving holiday to report on the realities of homelessness in Western North Carolina. This week, he revisited some of the people and places from that journey, and learned things are much different today.
Last Thanksgiving, three of Haywood County’s best-known nonprofits serving the homeless and the hungry reported once again new highs in the amount of people they’d served. This year, administrators at The Open Door, The Canton Community Kitchen and Pathways were asked what had changed. “It has not decreased. We’ve not seen a change,” said Allison Jennings, executive director of the Canton Community Kitchen.
“In the last year I think if anything has changed, it’s been an increase in the need,” said Tom Owens, executive director at the Open Door. “Our shelter is now full, where the last time when you were, here we usually would have had an open bed, if not five or six,” said Mandy Haitcox, executive director at Pathways. “So for the last three or four months, all of our beds have been filled, every single night.”
Pathways can house 28 women and 36 men, and in 2017 provided more than 7,600 nights of shelter. To date in 2018, that number has already grown to more than 14,000. They’ve also served more than 35,000 meals to date, compared to 28,000 for all of 2017.
Even with a robust economy and shockingly low unemployment, homelessness and hunger are on the rise, and local leaders are preparing for yet another banner year in 2019. The Open Door is setting the stage for growth, according to Owens, Pathways is about to open a new $550,000 women and children’s dorm, and the Pastor Chris Jennings says the Canton Community Kitchen is preparing to move in to a new building.
“For one, we’re going from 1,100 square feet to 7,000 square feet,” said Jennings. “We’ll have two designated classroom spaces, a shower and laundry in the building, and we’ll have computers set up in the classrooms.”
Combined these organizations served more than 80,000 meals last year, on funding of about $700,000. As these organizations increase their capacity, they say that the biggest driver of demand is the ongoing lack of affordable mental health and substance abuse counseling available in rural areas, meaning that homelessness will continue to be a problem in Western North Carolina, no matter how good the economy gets.