Boarding house blues

“Cherokee” Joe — a man so tall the top of his cowboy hat almost blocked the view of the fire-exit sign posted over the door — stood in the dining room of the condemned house, summing things up for himself and the other residents of 135 Merrimon Ave.: “This old house ain’t much, but it’s all they got.”

Cracked support beams in the basement of the century-old boarding house sag. A rusty, second-floor fire escape is reachable only through a narrow bathroom. The tin roof leaks, and wood under the eaves has rotted. Dozens of trash bags fill part of the back yard. At a Nov. 28 public hearing, city officials cited these and many other building- and fire-safety-code violations in the house, and Council members ordered its 33 residents to vacate within 90 days.

But where can they go?

On the day of the hearing, Mountain Xpress met with “Cherokee” Joe Chambers and other residents of this grand old ruin. Many with disabilities, some with past felony convictions or drug/alcohol addictions, most with very limited incomes — these are people who have almost no local options for housing, especially the kind that provides three hot meals a day and offers the same feeling of “family,” according to Paula Simonton, one of four staff residents who work the front desk, keep an eye on tenants and coordinate meals every day.

“The city believes this house is unsafe to live in, but there’s just no other place to move to,” said Simonton, who had pleaded with City Council members to give them time to find new homes. To date, few residents have found another place to stay; many do not qualify for subsidized housing.

We sat at the home’s front desk on a chilly, bright November day. Across the room, several residents watched the old black-and-white classic King Kong on television. A man with scraggly hair and a badly scarred face spoke briefly to Simonton, glanced sideways at me, then skittered away. The less shy residents came over to see who the visitor was, and Simonton coaxed them to talk.

There was Cherokee Joe, who handed me his business card — “The Cherokee Cowboy, Author, Composer, Freelance Writer.” With his cowboy hat and guitar, he lacked only an all-black outfit to pass for Johnny Cash. And when he posed for a picture, another resident teased him about his grim visage: “Cherokee Joe looks like he’s going to a funeral!”

Stern looks or not, Cherokee Joe numbers among the helpers in the house — those who have it a bit more together and can look out for the others. He’s also got something most residents don’t — a vehicle. In that old green truck, Cherokee Joe chauffeurs residents who need to get to doctors or to the store. “I’ve always had an interest in helping the disabled and disadvantaged,” said Cherokee Joe, who’s been in the house about 11 years. He’s part of a little group that calls itself Loafs and Fishes — “just me and a couple other guys. We take food and stuff to the missions and places like that around town.”

He glanced around the room, taking in the residents, the old upright grand piano, the new smoke detectors, fire alarms and emergency lights. “The city report — it didn’t take into account the work we have done, trying to fix this place up [since inspections back in January]. Some stuff, we didn’t get around to, because of financial problems. All we’re asking for is a little extra time to find places for everybody. … This place — it is dry and warm and it’s better than a spot under the bridge. And it’s kind of a family atmosphere.”

Part of that family is Steven Fisher, a bearded, stocky man who looks older than his 50-some years. When Simonton asked him to talk, he settled into a chair by the front desk, hands stuffed in his jacket pockets, talking low and slow and careful-like. He has a cross tattooed on one forearm, and another tattoo that says “Linda.” He said he’d served three tours in Vietnam, “fighting for freedom and peace,” and recounted that he’d found the boarding house after a long spell of hard times. “I like it here. I’ve learned some lessons here,” said Fisher. “I spent five years on the streets, and I don’t want to do that again.”

I asked about the tattoos, about Linda. “That’s my wife,” said Fisher, looking away as he added, “She lives in Greenville.” He didn’t elaborate further. He has lived in the house for more than three years, and mentioned that it used to be a boarding house for young women attending Blanton’s College in the 1950s and ’60s.

Like many of the home’s residents, Fisher relies on little more than $500 a month in Social Security and veterans’ benefits, Simonton emphasized. Others get aid through the Blue Ridge Center for Mental Health, and some work minimum-wage jobs, she added, handing me a list of current residents. They range in age from 34 to 83.

On the younger side, there’s Denis McDonald. When I sat beside him in the dining room for a homey meal of sloppy joes, the 34-year-old was quick to offer me a Mountain Dew, then to explain the Yankee twang in his accent. “I’m from near Boston — been in this house since I was 24,” he said. McDonald recalled when the place went by the name of Porche’s Boarding House (a 1978 city directory calls it Faith House).

A testament to those days are the small signs with biblical sayings posted about the house. On the wall by the dining room’s curved bay window, one of them reads, “For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.”

How did McDonald end up in this rickety Queen Anne mansion, with its turrets and arched entranceways and faded Christian signs? He took off his Hooters Racing cap and showed me a bald spot on his head. The spot was plain dented in, like an old can.

“I got hit in the head with a shovel when I was 15,” said McDonald matter-of-factly. “I had to relearn how to walk and talk, just like a baby.” He came to Asheville years ago and lived with his mother … until she died unexpectedly of a heart attack. Since then, he’s worked odd jobs for a local attorney who manages his finances. “I get fed here — for as long as it’s open, that is,” said McDonald, who leaned over to quietly add: “I’m not trying to be negative, but that’s how it is.”

He reflected on his 10 years living in the house, mentioning past front-desk managers and friends, many of whom have lived there longer than he has. McDonald chowed down on the sloppy joes and recollected, “Frank, now — he made the best chili.” He paused and said, “This is just about the only place I can afford to live and get three hot meals every day. If you’ve got to work and miss lunch or dinner, you can sign up for a ‘late plate,’ so you’ll have something to eat when you come home.”

Then there was Todd Hollar, not much older than McDonald, who offered me a slice of lemon-custard pie and explained that most of the home’s food is donated by nonprofits such as the Asheville-Buncombe Community Christian Ministry. While I talked to McDonald, Hollar and Simonton tossed around ideas for what to do with the portabello mushrooms and artichokes they had just received. Of the city order to close the house, Hollar remarked, “I don’t know what I’ll do. It really puts me in a position — losing a job and a home.”

Like Simonton, he works as a staff resident, helping in the kitchen, and watching out for folks. He also looks after the home’s parakeet “Granny” and tends the home’s many plants, such as several huge, lush Boston ferns that someone donated a while back. Many residents, he noted, watched the Nov. 28 public hearing on television — the first time an Asheville City Council meeting was ever broadcast live. When Council took the final vote to close the place, said Hollar, “It was real somber. Most of [the residents] just went quietly to their rooms.”

“Twin” — 34-year-old Latonda Whitmire — was one of the residents who went to the public hearing but hung back, letting Simonton speak for the group. She told Mountain Xpress, “I came here about five years ago and started getting my life straightened up. I came here to visit one day and got attached to these people. [They’ve] helped me. I had my own apartment once, but these people got me off drugs. I love living here. I love working here.”

“Twin” helps with cleanup around the house — and feeds the pigeons. After taking care of a few duties, she grabbed a bag of birdseed, grinned like a kid, and headed outside.

“I know [Asheville Housing Coordinator] Jeff Baker doesn’t want to see these people on the streets,” said Simonton. “He’s just doing his job.”

Simonton, too, ended up in the house after a rough spell. An injury that tore tendons, ligaments and nerves in her wrist and forearm kept her out of work for almost a year in the late 1990s. “I went through the disability routine, but I didn’t qualify,” said Simonton, who had gone back to school to become a certified nursing assistant. She’s been in Asheville off and on since she was in the third grade; her father worked under Weldon Weir as a city water engineer. Now 48, Simonton finds herself in as tough a spot as most of the residents she looks after.

She gave me a tour of the house, showing the bits of maintenance tenants have done to try to bring the old house up to code. She showed me her room, where dozens of pictures decorate the walls in collages that illustrate her life. One cluster features her sister, mom and family out West. Several are collections of people she helped when she worked with AHOPE and Hospitality House, and some show the residents of 135 Merrimon.

“[Council member] Barbara Field was right when she said we don’t have enough single-occupancy space in Asheville. The Windsor Hotel [downtown] doesn’t serve meals. Another place requires a $200 deposit and does credit and background checks,” said Simonton. She made no apologies for the residents with checkered pasts that might not pass muster, even noting that there was once a problem with prostitutes sneaking into the back cottage, jumping the barbed-wire fence in back. “We cleaned all that behavior up,” Simonton said. Visitors and residents have to sign in and out, and the front desk is monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

She bent down to pick up one of her two cats, Jaws-and-claws, a big gray beast that she says keeps her company. “I don’t know what I’m going to do, either,” confided Simonton.

But that was enough worrying about herself: Simonton led me back to the front desk, where 55-year-old Billy Mills was anxiously awaiting a ride to Pisgah Legal Services for an appointment. He used to live in West Asheville, after spending years in the food-service business. “I paid the same amount of rent [there] as I do here, but that didn’t include food,” said Mills, whose only income is Social Security and veterans’ benefits. “For the money, I get a better deal here,” said the Asheville native. “Right now, this is all I’ve got, as far as having a home.”

“There’s only two choices I’ve got — the streets or the V.A. dormitory in Tennessee,” Bernie Cook interjected. He leaned against the counter at the front desk and offered a comment here and there. “If [the owners] could get a little money, they could restore this old house,” he said.

But Hendersonville mortgage company T.M. Equities has foreclosed on owners Bob Janney and Sara Krueger, residents learned at the City Council meeting. T.M. Equities has told city officials they have no intention of keeping the boarding house open. Said Council member Brian Peterson at the public hearing, “The current owner is leaving it up to the city to do the dirty work.”

Can the house be saved? Baker, the Asheville housing coordinator, didn’t hold out hope. The property is worth at least $440,000 to T.M. Equities, and it might take at least that much to fix the place up, he had mentioned after the public hearing.

Meanwhile, rumors abound at the house — the car dealer across the street wants the property, or maybe it’s a local environmental organization that covets the place. Simonton tried to make light of the mood in the house, joking, “Residents are fruitcaking over here.”

That aside, though, Simonton calls for a little heart in Asheville, concluding, “These are folks that want to maintain their own dignity and their own space.”

MORE INFO

The Affordable Housing Coalition, which is working with city officials to find housing for displaced residents, can be reached at 259-9216. Jeff Baker can be reached at 259-5764.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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