Mar. 31—This is the second in a series about the Frog Level district in Waynesville.
While several business owners in Frog Level report the problems with littering and loitering many have associated with The Open Door seemed to have diminished in the past year, others argue the issue hasn't gone away.
Many in the community attributed the police calls in Frog Level to a growing homeless population, but Laura Shepherd, director of The Open Door's food operations, contends that wasn't the case.
"The majority of people we served here weren't homeless," Shepherd said, estimating that population was just .7% of those served. Most of those who hung out at the ministry were seeking camaraderie and were born and raised in Haywood, she said.
"We haven't shut down one day. Just because they are not here physically doesn't mean they aren't moving further on down to Walmart," she said. "They will be here until we address the root cause, which is mental health issues."
Indeed, statistics gathered by the Waynesville Police Department show a decrease in calls to Frog Level, but crime has been down across the county since COVID-19 hit.
In 2019, records show Waynesville officers responded to a total of 752 calls in the district. Waynesville Police Chief David Adams said calls were for a variety of causes, including traffic accidents, fights, disturbances, harassment, larceny or simply reports of a suspicious situation.
In 2020, the calls went down to 554, something that could be explained by the large number of businesses that closed, temporarily shut down, or didn't see much foot traffic because of COVID.
When all five Waynesville governing board leaders were up for election in 2019, one of the hottest topics was the growing number of itinerants and unhoused individuals in Waynesville.
Many in the community, as well as some campaigning for office, pointed to The Open Door, as a source of the problem. The nonprofit has long provided hot meals, showers, hair cuts, a laundry area, phone charging stations and a place where those seeking help, or at least companionship, could find some solace.
During a jam-packed community meeting held in October 2019 next door at Frog Level Brewing, The Open Door was targeted by some for creating the problem, and defended by others who contended the vulnerable population was already in the area and The Open Door was simply filling the biblical directive to be the hands and feet of Jesus.
Fast-forward to March 2020 when coronavirus rules disrupted the operational model at The Open Door. At that time, all in-person meals and services halted as the nonprofit switched to a pick-up meal service, and later to a van delivery model a block away. The change was happening in June regardless under new terms of the building lease.
The Open Door has long been operated by Long's Chapel United Methodist Church and is funded largely from the proceeds of the Second Blessings Thrift Shop located in the same building.
Feeding the hungry
Under its new operating model, The Open Door now focuses exclusively on providing meals, not just to those who live or gather in the Frog Level area, but across Haywood.
In February 2021, Long's Chapel provided over 1,000 hot lunches and distributed 800-plus overnight food bags through the meal service offered out of its van. The meals are served beginning at 11:30 a.m. weekdays in the St. John's Church lower parking lot, just a block away from The Open Door.
That doesn't include the 8,000 to 10,000 pounds of food distributed monthly through The Open Door. Long-standing volunteer organizations such as Feeding the Multitudes or church groups have distribution routes in the county, Shepherd said. Volunteers take the food to the marginalized communities where residents can look through the many food items and take what they need, she added.
"We estimate 1,200 individuals are receiving food from those deliveries," Shepherd said. In addition to the neighborhood deliveries, volunteer Beverly Banks takes food items to the numerous outdoor pantries in the county where those who aren't home during the day or work during times when other agencies distribute food can supply their needs 24/7.
The Open Door has large, walk-in refrigerated units where food that comes from MANNA Food Bank in Asheville, as well as from local grocers is stored.
"MANNA tells us Haywood County is a leader in local food distribution efforts in their 17-county service area," said Shepherd.
Different church volunteer teams still prepare the hot lunches each weekday in The Open Door's kitchen, and other volunteers serve those who either drive or walk to the nearby church parking lot.
The Open Door's spacious dining area was converted into the Treasure Room, where lower-priced items can better be displayed and sold, said Susan Dolci, Second Blessings' thrift store manager. Having the additional space allowed Second Blessings to spread out merchandise so that conditions didn't look so crowded, she added.
In the Treasure Room, those who have lost homes due to fire or other circumstances can come by and just take what they need, Dolci said.
In the past four years since she's worked at The Open Door, Dolci said things have changed drastically.
"We didn't have a lot of people just loitering outside," she said. "It was more like people would come and go."
Recent changes may be viewed as a positive by Frog Level business owners, Dolci said, but they definitely haven't been good for those who were served by The Open Door.
"We served a small percentage of homeless, but most were socially isolated with no friends and no place to go," Dolci said. "We would help them build relationships. We offered far more than just food. This past year with COVID gives all of us a sense of what it is like to be isolated without a human connection."