Q&A: Nicole Kott on treating the homeless with dignity

NO ONE REASON: "Every single reason for homelessness is so different," says Nicole Kott, executive director of Helping Hands of Haywood. "Childhood events, trauma that goes untreated, trauma leading to self-medication — there's no one reason." Photo courtesy of Kott

Nicole Kott never intended to launch a nonprofit. “I just wanted to know why we had people sleeping out in the cold,” says the executive director and founder of Helping Hands of Haywood. “I put blankets on them. I went and ate cheeseburgers with them. And in doing so I found out that the reasons for homelessness differ from person to person.”

Kott, who has lived in Waynesville since 2006, notes her approach isn’t unique. “The people here are just amazing,” she says of her neighbors. “When somebody really needs something, the community comes together, and they get it done.”

Launched in 2019, Helping Hands of Haywood’s mission is to expand programming and address the needs of those experiencing homelessness or insecure shelter in Haywood County. “Everybody needs something different,” Kott explains. “It could be something as simple as a tag registration, or it could be something much more intense like trauma, healing and substance abuse treatment.”

A complete picture of Haywood County’s homeless population is hard to track, Kott continues. She says the annual point-in-time count isn’t exact. “Many people sleep in cars, hotels, 24-hour laundromats or they couch-surf,” she points out. “Too often, too many people don’t get counted.”

Xpress sat down with Kott to discuss her work, the challenges her clients face and the importance of treating everyone with dignity and respect.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed. 

What are some insights on homelessness that you’ve gained since launching the nonprofit?

I’d say that trauma and the housing crisis are responsible for most of our homelessness in Waynesville. Unlike other areas, our homelessness population is 90% local, if not more. These people know each other, and they’re part of the community in their own way. They’ll share their last cigarette with each other. I’ve had some of the best laughs and some of the best times with people that don’t have homes. They’re not sitting around crying and moping. They’re still living life.

How did Helping Hands of Haywood come to be?

In 2019, a group of us started talking about the issues faced by people experiencing homelessness. We began offering supplies they needed to survive, whether it was a sleeping bag, food or bandages. And by December of 2019, we incorporated as a nonprofit organization.

By February of 2020, we received our 501(c)(3) status. Since then, we’ve just been trying to fill in the gaps. And we have found so many gaps. Waynesville has a homeless shelter and a domestic violence shelter. But you can’t get into the shelter without passing a drug test and having a background without violence, and you have to be local. You can’t get into the domestic violence shelter if the abuse you’ve experienced wasn’t coming from an intimate partner.

What is your approach for connecting with clients? 

We sit down and get to know each person. I don’t normally have to look at a file to know someone’s first and last name and even birthday. I know our clients — the ones who are chronically homeless, the ones that have deeper-rooted issues. We build trust with them, because I never judge any of the mistakes they’ve made. I don’t condone, but I don’t judge. That’s not my job.

What is the biggest challenge in supporting clients? 

The biggest challenge is finding enough mental health care to dive deep into trauma healing and rehab fast enough. We do have great mental health services and great rehab. But when someone is ready for that, they’re ready in that moment. They’re not ready a week and a half from now at 1 o’clock.

Meeting people where they’re at is crucial. Giving them hotel space and what care we can give until we can bridge them into a facility has been a linchpin in getting people sober.

What do you think surprises people the most about those experiencing homelessness?

That we’re all in the same human basket; that they’re not different. That’s the main thing. There’s so many people, even providers sometimes, that see a clear line between us and them. There is no them and us. Everybody could be one trauma away from from picking up a drug. Any renter can be one house-turned-Airbnb away from homelessness. It can happen to anybody.

Some of us just have more privilege than others. Some of us have a grandpa with 30 acres and a mobile home that we can move into. Some of us have people that could help us with our bills. And some of us have never had anybody. We’re all human.

Along with your nonprofit work, you’re a mother of three. Between your family and professional life, how do you avoid burnout? 

I’ve learned to lean on my staff [of two and 12 volunteers] a little more. That’s when I can rejuvenate. But burnout creeps up on you, you know? You feel fine until you don’t. And I’m glad that I’ve got great staff and volunteers when that happens.

Lastly, if someone wanted to assist people experiencing homelessness, where would you suggest they start?

Get to know people. The worst thing that we do as a society is walk right by, not make eye contact and not say hi. We have to get to know our neighbors without homes. And we have to get to know how they got in that situation. Talk to them.


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2 thoughts on “Q&A: Nicole Kott on treating the homeless with dignity

  1. Junior Carver

    They are still pushing that low that 90% of the homeless are local, I see.

    I know that saying it is good for fundraising, but it’s patently not true. Just because someone has a brand new ID with a local address that you helped them get or they stayed in a hotel locally for a bit doesn’t make them “local”.

    You can ask anyone in police, fire or EMS who also often interacts with the homeless population in Haywood County and get a much more accurate picture. There are people coming to the area because of generous services. A lot of them.

    • Big Al

      Many of the homeless in Asheville moved here to prey on tourists flush with vacation cash. Having a walkable downtown makes them more accessable, too.

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