Down and out in Asheville: The face of local homelessness

Photo by Amber McGilvary

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.”

Educated, trained...and hopeful: "There seems to be more opportunity in Asheville," John says. Photo by Amber McGilvary
Educated, trained…and hopeful: “There seems to be more opportunity in Asheville,” John says. Photo by Amber McGilvary

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.

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About Amber McGilva
Graduate of UNCA 2015 in Mass Communication.

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24 thoughts on “Down and out in Asheville: The face of local homelessness

  1. VAL

    My heart goes out to these people… I’ve lived in cities 3-4 times larger and smaller than Asheville and have never seen so much poverty and homelessness…. Southern Culture IS on the skids… So much income inequality/ socio-economic discrepancy here in the DIRTY SOUTH

    • Jim

      You best check yourself. The dirty Asheville area is filled with transplants. So if these people are cold and immune to the plight of the homeless, surely it’s because they bring their values from OUTSIDE the south. The worst thing to ever happen to Asheville is to be discovered by northern New York upper east coast liberals. Period. An dI have no issue with them leaving.

      • Amber McGilvary

        Every city is filled with transplants. Asheville is no exception, being one myself, I do know this. I am from Philadelphia, my husband is from Florida, and yet I’ve never really felt home until I reached Asheville. That is why this issue became so important to me. Northern or southern, liberal or conservative, green or purple… None of it matters. The focus is that we all live here together and can do something about this.

      • Fred

        There are an overwhelming amount of homelessness and poverty relative to Asheville’s population.. Yes every city has got this issue, but not to this degree; unless of course if you’re comparing it to New Orleans right after Katrina.. Homelessness and poverty are the direct result of an ever widening socioeconomic gap. Clearly, the South has the fewest middle-class citizens per capita; Northern transplants only increase the % of middle class; and help The economy Bringing their big northern money.. Increasing real estate rate; primarily benefiting the locals who are selling off the land. Southern state school systems performances are by far lower than anywhere else in the country; this goes for social services, and safety nets; it’s what you get when you pay the least amount of taxes.

    • Jim

      And as a matter of fact, do yourself a favor and see where the local politicians are from before you judge the south. And do the south a favor and leave. Go back to your Chicago or Detroit or Baltimore. They’re excellent examples of the insanity that OUTSIDERS bring with them.

      • With all of the beautiful, forested land that comprises Asheville, why can’t there by a supervised, orderly tent community that those in transition can inhabit? A place where people can be safe, pursue work, not live in the woods and feel human. Isn’t that the least we can do for those that are trying? I’ve been there, most of those that are homeless are not there by choice but by circumstance.

        • Amber McGilvary

          This is something worth looking into. Perhaps the weather and elements play an issue in things, or tourism… I am not certain, but it’s worth looking further into.

    • Amber McGilvary

      I don’t feel that southern culture is on the skids at all. I believe that Asheville, like many cities, has its issues, but it also has its people working hard to change things. People like Heather Dillasaw and Asia James who work for organizations intent on solving or lessening the issue of homelessness are out there.
      I grew up in Philadelphia and have family from New York and I have seen these issues before. It is not specific to Asheville or the south but perhaps here in Asheville we notice it more because it is smaller and there is less area for things to be spread over.
      Hopefully this article and the real stories of John and Anna bring awareness to people in the community who can accomplish something to help them. Being both a “yankee” and a southerner half each of my life, I still care about these issues. These people were lovely people trying to get by. And I know I’m not the only one thinking it. I hope the future is to figure out a way to change things, not place blame.
      Thank you very much for reading the article. and for your comment. I am glad John and Anna pulled at your heart. They definitely got to mine…

  2. donathan_white

    Is there a way I can contact John? I’d be interested in finally learning YOGA.

    • Amber McGilvary

      Thank you for reading and I couldn’t agree with you more. When I set out to write this I will admit, I wasn’t sure what I would find. John was the most unexpected person I’ve met in a long time. He is such a kind and caring person and I feel privileged to have met him. Ana and David as well, actually. I am a quite open-minded person to begin with, but even I was surprised at the intelligence and kindness in the people I spoke with.
      John’s story especially effected me, having just received my bachelors degree last week from UNCA. Bad things can happen to anyone, no matter your education and background, It doesn’t make them less in anyway, it just makes them need a little help sometimes. Help that can be provided with a little push from the people in the community.
      Thank you for reading.

      • Frank

        It was a well written article Amber. Thank you and Mountainx for providing great news coverage of local issues and culture.

  3. Curious

    Can’t John get a yoga job with one of the many yoga studios in Asheville? Could Anna go to A-B Tech and get her GED? It might enhance her dreams of going to law school.

    • Amber McGilvary

      Great questions Curious! John’s problem with the Yoga studio’s is that were he to get an interview, he had no clean clothes to wear. No way of them contacting him to let him know if he got the job, either. Though now he has found a place for clean clothes, and A-HOPE provides a place to use as a mailing address and telephone, he is more hopeful. When I spoke to him again downtown one day he did let me know that with clean clothes he had a better chance and was going to the library for his resume.
      As far as Anna she was not as complete with her plan as John was. She knows what she wants, I think she is still considering how it is she will get there. I was unable to locate her again after writing the article.
      Having a safe place to do these things though is the real issue and what places like Homeward Bound and A-Hope stress we as a community can help with by pushing the representatives for more affordable housing for these programs.

  4. Looking for My Bliss

    I can sure relate to John. I too am tired of working constantly and feeling dissatisfied with my life. What good are two college degrees when you’re trying to find your bliss? And my mother also didn’t want me living with her. Interferring with her life, she said. And she expected me to work and pay her rent. I haven’t tried the Ireland thing, though. England might be nice. I think they have something called the dole there and free health care. Why can’t America do that so people can stop working constantly and feeling dissatisfied with their life? I’d like to try the homeless thing. Where is that school for homeless people in Winston? I probably wouldn’t like it there for long either, not after Asheville, but if I arrive with $40 and can leave with $200 before I come back, that might be worth it. This was a very informative article.

    • Amber McGilvary

      There isn’t a school for homeless in Winston-Salem just kind people he met that helped him learn where to go and what to do in order to avoid major problems. The $200 was a loan from an ex.
      I’ve actually lived in England, for one year, and can tell you depending on where you go it can be amazing. In my experience the further north you go there the more friendly people are. Newcastle is amazing. Though the dole is not free and to receive it you must be actively looking for a job and going to the jobs office every 2 weeks to prove that. Oh, and American’s can’t get it.

    • Big Al

      I don’t know about England, but I visited the Socialist-Welfare paradise of Edinburgh last year and saw as many homeless young people as I did in Asheville. Don’t believe the hype about UK welfare, it just looks good on paper.

  5. Big Al

    “…the face of local homelessness cannot so easily be reduced to a few derogatory clichés…”

    And yet, HERE THEY ARE:

    “John has a bachelor’s degree…a graduate diploma…and a master’s…But after living and working in marine biology…John says he got tired of working constantly…so he got certified as a yoga instructor…John moved back in with his mother …she asked him to leave…He made it to Winston-Salem…I met a wonderful group of people there…They taught me how to be homeless.”

    Another overeducated bum who moved to a yoga-saturated hipster enclave without ever chaecking to see if there were jobs avaialble. Classic cliché.

    You want to “instruct” (indoctrinate?) others but don’t want the daily grind of a real job? What makes you so special?

    “Anna…dreams of attending law school, so she can sue governments over the unconstitutional treatment of people that she says she’s …she makes jewelry and trades it for…It helps us get food and stuff…We’re not lazy…We just work differently than other people.”

    Everybody sing: “She’s making jewelry now, she’s got her life on track…” (Portlandia, season 2) All Portlandia skits are about clichés, and this one is a perfect fit.

    • Media Watcher

      A few possibilities. One is that the author, just graduated from UNCA with a degree in Mass Communications, while clearly well meaning and sympathetic to those she interviewed, hasn’t yet learned the hard journalistic lessons about doing in-depth research about her topic – in this case the socio-economic causes of homelessness and the social and personal pathologies of those who are homeless. She also may not have learned the intuitive skepticism that experienced interviewers have towards their subjects. A second possibility is that her Mountain Xpress editor did not work closely with her on developing this story. They should have alerted her that her choice of subjects fit the stereotypes of the homeless (lazy, feckless, made poor choices) that she was hoping to dispel.

      • Big Al

        I don’t think lazy or feckless are part of the homeless cliche, and I am very sympathetic to those who made poor choices. The cliche comes from the sense of entitlement in statements such as “tired of working constantly” and “we just work differently”. Add to this the number of so-called “activists” who enable these entitlement delusions and you have a permanent sub-culture of people who only work when the work is convenient and who blame “society” for not making it convenient.

    • A lot of people adapt an aloof attitude or decide to drop out of the system more as a way to keep their self-worth intact. It takes a lot of rejection in the workplace to finally say, “screw it” and give up. There are literally millions of people who’ve seen their careers cut short by re-engineering, off-shoring and technology. To tell them to just suck it up and get a job, rather than investigate what else life might offer is simply following the program of brain-washing we’ve had since childhood. That to work, produce, make lots of money, consume and screw everybody along the way is the point of living. I’ll give far more credit to those that are willing to walk down a rougher path than those that grand stand and point fingers, puffing their chests as if they can’t be victim of the same vicious market mechanisms. This article simply told the stories of a few people who are struggling in Ashevillle, but it represents a great majority of people who are stuck in crappy jobs, and are just a couple paychecks from homelessness. Go ahead and find cliches and criticize the journalist, it’s far easier to do that than admit this could be you, or your friends or family. If you can’t see that far outside of your perspective that says more about you than the people featured in this article.

  6. Alan Ditmore

    To some extent the South is dumping the region’s homeless on liberal Asheville; but also elite yankee environmentalists are aggravating the problems by preventing anyone from building enough houses. A lot of the liberal side of causing homelessness is the UDO with it’s single family zoning, unit density limits, setbacks, height limits and parking requirements. And Asheville’s camping ban is related to this as well. Rapidly portable camps can be set up in the French Broad floodplain where permanent housing is very hard to build.

    The DEA can handle that kind of stuff for free. Progressive cities should wash our hands of police and devote ALL our funds to housing which also reduces desperation related crime.
    I wrote on Buncombe Politics that friction between police and housing residents was inevitable and could never be resolved because they were in direct competition for the exact same funding dollars. Funding is absolutely a zero sum game and I am for housing and must therefore be against police (and childcare and every other budget item.) Armed citizens, deputies, state troopers and FBI combine to provide plenty of law enforcement while housing funds effectively reduce desperation related crime. Also, by defunding, bad cops can be layed off subjectively without provable cause, thus bypassing the police unions and civil service board.

    I’m thinking that maybe progressive cities like Baltimore and Asheville should simply abandon policing and transfer all police funds to affordable housing etc. Then the county, state and feds will be left to police Baltimore, which will not solve the use of force problem, but it will allow the mayor to wash her hands of it while reducing desperation, and the crime it causes. State troopers would not dare abandon city policing for fear of crime spillover beyond city limits. Besides, the most commonly enforced laws are state anyway, which means the same people who made the laws are then funding their enforcement, rather than having cities mostly paying to enforce someone else’s (state) laws. Why pay to enforce someone else’s laws?
    This would also reduce budgetary tension, which is really most of it, between city police and public housing residents. There would be no tension with a force that no longer exists.

    Also, why doesn’t XPress make tese comment boards less broadband intensive so it can be used with dialup. They are catering to a digital elite with boadband.

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