Terry Joe Self was suffering. His kidneys were failing, and after enduring round upon round of dialysis, he was tired and ready to die.
“Dialysis was really hard for him, and it is for some people,” says Michael Platz, the manager of the respite center at Haywood Street Congregation in Asheville. “You spend six to eight hours, three days a week having the blood taken out of your body, purified and put back in. And then you feel bad for about 24 hours, feel good for about 12 hours and then you go back.”
Although he had suffered through periods of homelessness, Self wanted to die in the closest place he had to a home, so he contacted Haywood Street and asked if he could stay in the church’s respite center.
The respite center typically acts as a place for homeless people to convalesce if they’re sick or recovering from an accident. “We’ve had a dozen people that have lived in respite pass away,” said the Rev. Brian Combs, one of the church’s ministers, “but that’s the first time someone has said, ‘This is where I want to die.’”
Self was one of 22 homeless and formerly homeless people in Asheville remembered at an interfaith service Dec. 19 at Haywood Street. At the climax of the ceremony, organizers read the names of the dead and lit 22 candles, each representing one of the people who died. Since 2012, the annual ceremony has honored more than 100 people.
Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer, who read a proclamation from the city during her remarks to the crowd, said the United States hasn’t figured out a way to solve the problem of homelessness, oftentimes putting the burden on a network of groups and individuals. “At some point hopefully on a national level, we’ll understand that we don’t approach this correctly and we’ll figure out a way to better support a comprehensive way to help people,” she said.
Locally, Manheimer said the city assists leaders like Combs and the Rev. Amy Cantrell of BeLoved Asheville in an effort to stem the problem. “That’s the way it works in our city and in other cities,” she said.
Between prayers and readings of scripture, church leaders led attendees in songs, belting tunes like “Abide with Me” and “Morning Has Broken,” accompanied by a harmonious salvo of chords from acoustic guitars punctuated at times by beats from bongo drums and a tambourine.
“If you get a chance to know the people who died, the gross stereotypes of homelessness always fall away,” Combs says. “They don’t apply.”
Platz, who arrived at the congregation about five years ago, says Self was a regular at Haywood Street even before he got there. “Terry was very outgoing, very vivacious, and he was very playful,” Platz says. “He would always say something funny to you.”
While he was at the respite center, Platz says, Self received a steady stream of visitors from the homeless community. The room where he died is very close to the room where the service was held on Dec. 19; walking between the two takes about 15 seconds.
At the entrance to the building, visitors encounter a floor-to-ceiling collage of photos that show the faces of those helped by the facility. On the left, staff have pinned a series of images of the people who have died at the center.
Staff members say Self was hesitant to have his photo taken, so his name is pinned to the wall on a small piece of white paper. Platz says Self was about 6 feet tall and slender. “He was a country boy,” Platz says.
According to congregation staff, Self also had Cherokee heritage, and the Rev. Mark Siler, another pastor at Haywood Street, says Self would often joke about leveraging his lineage to acquire a large amount of money, which Self would fantasize about distributing to Haywood Street and other local organizations. “There wasn’t a lot of logic behind it, but there was a lot of heart behind it, which kinds of sums up Terry in a lot of ways,” he says.
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