In 2005, city and county officials adopted the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, an ambitious collaboration involving many local agencies. Significant progress has been made: Since 2005, chronic homelessness is down 82 percent, from 293 people to just 54, city officials say. Yet there are still homeless folks on local streets.
“We’re struggling as a community with long wait times for housing: We don’t have enough, and the demand is great,” says Heather Dillashaw, the staff person for the Asheville-Buncombe Homeless Initiative Advisory Committee, a joint city/county body charged with implementing the 10-Year Plan. “City Council has made it a priority, but we need people to talk to elected officials.”
Area residents, Dillashaw maintains, need to prod both the city and county to take action on establishing more affordable housing — and, thus, helping members of the homeless community get their lives back on track.
Asia James, program director of the A-HOPE Day Center, agrees, saying concerned citizens should “do everything they can to advocate for housing: attend City Council meetings, write letters to officials and letters to the editor, things like that.”
A-HOPE is a project of Homeward Bound of WNC, a local nonprofit whose focus is getting people into permanent housing. But in the meantime, says James, the day center serves as a sort of switchboard for homeless folks, who can use it as a mailing address, a place to take a shower or find other helpful programs.
“We match people with the services they need,” which can range from telephone to having clean clothes for a job interview, she explains. The Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry and the Salvation Army, notes James, “give vouchers for new clothes. The Goodwill on Patton also gives job interview clothes, but we haven’t solved the issue of where people can do laundry yet.”
“The real goal is housing, though. There is funding coming in: We just don’t have the actual housing.”
Meanwhile, homeless people continue to struggle not only with these tangible practical issues but also with social stereotypes that consign them to a kind of untouchable status. In fact, however, the face of local homelessness cannot so easily be reduced to a few derogatory clichés, however deeply ingrained they may be. Like any other human population, the homeless are a diverse group of individuals, whose histories and dreams may be surprising or even inspiring; here are profiles of a couple of them.
Not even human?
The smell of food wafts along Patton Avenue, and buskers play music or pose as living statues, guitar cases and tip jars lying at their feet. Over in Pritchard Park, a guy in a tie-dye shirt and dreadlocks plays a drum as passers-by pause, listen for a few minutes and then move on, their eyes never straying to the neighboring stone slab where John, a 53-year-old homeless man, is trying to get some sleep.
“Most people don’t even notice I’m here,” he says. “People treat you like you’re not even human.”
John is not downtown for the music or the hip atmosphere: He needs a place to rest and something to eat. Getting food is never guaranteed, and homeless people do a lot of walking, constantly moving around as they try to find someplace where the police won’t roust them out.
Meanwhile, the available options for shelter may not work for everyone.
“Some of the missions lock you in at night,” notes John. “That’s not cool. The one good thing about being homeless is freedom. I don’t want to be locked inside somewhere with no way to get out: You don’t know what can happen.”
Nothing about John seems to fit the stereotypes: He’s highly educated and says he’s been homeless for only a short time.
John has a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Delaware, a graduate diploma from the University of New South Wales, and a master’s in marine ecology from the University of Sydney. But after living and working in marine biology and corporate environments all over the U.S., John says he got tired of working constantly and still feeling dissatisfied with his life, so he got certified as a yoga instructor.
He was living in Poughkeepsie, New York, teaching yoga at Dutchess Community College, when he met and fell in love with an Irish woman.
“Suddenly, I knew what all the love songs were about,” he says. “We moved to Ireland to help take care of her ill father. They wouldn’t let me stay, though. If you have, like, 400,000 euros, they let you stay; not regular people, though.”
John moved back in with his mother in West Virginia for a short time but didn’t find work, and she asked him to leave. With $40 in his pocket, he says he went to the bus station and asked how close to Asheville he could get. He made it to Winston-Salem that night.
“I met a wonderful group of people there,” he recalls. “They taught me how to be homeless. But I couldn’t stay in Winston-Salem: I hated it.”
With $200 an ex-girlfriend gave him, he set out for Asheville the next day.
“There seems to be more opportunity in Asheville,” says John. “I’m hopeful; I want to find a job as a yoga instructor again. It’s just hard to do when you haven’t showered and your clothes are filthy.”
A journey of faith
Anna, an Asheville native, returned here recently after being homeless and traveling around the country for 31 years.
“I’m on a faith journey,” she says. “God has given me a mission, and everywhere I go I see injustice.”
Anna left Asheville at age 16 after her best friend taught her about God, feeling compelled to move around helping mentally ill, disabled and homeless people.
She dreams of attending law school, so she can sue governments over the unconstitutional treatment of people that she says she’s seen.
Adding to Anna’s challenges, though, is the fact that she travels with her husband, David, who’s been diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder. Anna says he has three personalities stemming from prior traumas.
“There’s a 9-year-old, a 14-year-old and then there’s him,” she explains. “The others exist to protect him from whatever happened when they formed. We know about one, but his family won’t help us learn the other.”
As Anna talks about the trauma, David grumbles angrily. “It’s the 14-year-old,” she says quietly.
Then, fumbling with his backpack, David momentarily reveals a pile of prescription pill bottles inside before zipping it closed. “They don’t need to know all that,” he tells her.
But a compliment about a pendant he’s wearing seems to calm him down. “She makes jewelry and trades it for things,” says David. “She’s really good at it. It helps us get food and stuff when we don’t want to go into the churches.”
Even though they’re on a mission from God, they don’t like religion, Anna explains. David agrees, saying religion has killed God.
Selling jewelry, notes Anna, also supports her dream of going to law school. “We’re not lazy,” she says. “We work. We just work differently than other people.”
David adds that they also spend a lot of time just hunting up food and shelter. And as the sun slips low in the sky, the two say they need to be off in search of a place to bed down for the night.
“We were sleeping under the bridge at the French Broad, but the cops made us leave,” Anna reveals, adding, “We’ll find something, though.”
As they walk away, however, David looks less certain.