By Sally Kestin, avlwatchdog.org
This is Part 3 of Asheville Watchdog’s series “Down Town,” examining the reality of the recent deterioration of Asheville’s central business district. In Part 1 we gave voice to the people who live and work downtown. In Part 2 we told the story from the perspective of Asheville’s police. Coming Next: Part 4: Ride along with the front line responders.
LaVyonne Evans is college-educated, well-spoken, and now, in his seventh decade, unhoused.
“I’m 67 years old, and I’m homeless with a walker,” he said.
In the nearly two months since he was evicted from his rent-subsidized apartment in the River Arts District for non-payment, Evans said he has slept on the streets, in the city bus station, and a U-Haul storage unit.
“There are a lot of challenges out here for people that aren’t on drugs or alcohol, that don’t choose to just break all the rules, that are seniors who have worked all their lives and find themselves in a bad situation,” Evans said. “I’m just making it from day to day.”
Evans is just one of the hundreds who make up Asheville’s unhoused — a mosaic that includes mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, and grandparents; people with mental and physical impairments; and those with gripping drug addictions.
Asheville Watchdog interviewed more than a dozen people experiencing homelessness. Their paths to the streets are varied but often involved the loss of loved ones, abandonment by their families, or a desire to escape difficult circumstances through drugs or alcohol.
They spoke candidly about their experiences on the streets and their struggles with drugs and mental illness because, they said, they want their community to know who they are.
Here are their stories:
‘Looking for a hand up’
Evans said he felt lost after his mother died in 1994. He left Chicago on a bus headed for Charlotte.
He didn’t like it there, “and people said, ‘Well, Asheville was a nice little place,’ ” Evans said. “I’ve been here since 2000.”
Evans said he has a college degree in marketing from the University of Illinois and worked as a warehouse logistics manager.
“I have all kinds of mental challenges: PTSD, bipolar level two … abandonment issues, dyslexia, spectrum autism,” Evans said. “I’m no longer suicidal, thank God for that.”
Evans said he collects a “small pension and retirement.” He qualified for housing assistance and said he had been living in a rent-subsidized apartment for 13 years.
Last fall, he said, a neighbor in his building tried to stab him, and “the manager did nothing about it.” Evans said he withheld his rent payments on the advice of legal aid lawyers, and the property manager filed paperwork to evict him.
He went to court to challenge the eviction, Evans said, but “my meds weren’t working and my hands were flailing around, and I looked like another person on drugs, so I got dismissed.”
Evans was evicted Jan. 17, court records show. He said he had no relatives to turn to. “I haven’t seen a family member since 1996.”
With nowhere to go, he said, “I was forced to live out on the streets.”
Evans said he stayed in a shelter for three days but left to seek help for a hernia at Mission Hospital.
“I went to the Emergency Room and they discharged me, and I didn’t have any proof where I was so I lost my bed,” he said. “I have to sit out for up to 30 days to come back.”
Evans said he slept at the central bus terminal on Coxe Avenue. “There’s an electric plug and you can recharge your phone overnight. And it’s safe because there’s lights on. You don’t sleep. You sit in your chair with a blanket on. It’s a wind tunnel.”
Most recently, he said, he’s slept inside the U-haul storage unit where he’s keeping the belongings from his apartment. They “allow me to be there overnight with a 24-hour access pad. That’s a blessing from God.”
He leaves in the morning. “I try to stay away an entire eight-hour day, just as if I was working,” he said. “I used to volunteer at Manna” Food Bank and churches.
Evans said drug “activity is out in the open” with dealers selling at a bus stop in the heart of downtown. “I see more needles on the ground than I do prophylactics, and we all know that there’s a lot of prostitution going on in the drug trade.”
Evans said he sees some help for the people on the streets going to those who don’t seem to want it.
“So much of the resources are being spent chasing people around in circles,” he said. “They give ‘em clothes, they give ‘em food, they give them this and that, and they go out, make a campsite and trash the place.”
He said he thinks “part of the problem with homelessness is that people are getting sick of grocery carts showing up all over town. Homeless people use them to transport their goods. They stock up on all this stuff, and then when things get rough, they just dump it and start over.”
Some take handouts, Evans said, when “people just like myself, we’re looking for a hand up.”
Evans said Asheville is no longer affordable for many on low or fixed incomes. “Food prices have gone up, electric has gone up, transportation, everything,” he said.
“If you’re renting, what maybe was $1,200 bucks a month is now $1,600. Where are we supposed to get that money from?”
Evans said a community of tiny homes would help reduce Asheville’s unhoused population. But “there’s just going to be poor and hungry always, according to the scripture,” he said. “And try as we might, we can’t fix it.”
Evans said he’s on a waiting list for subsidized housing. “I gotta just keep waiting for a one-bedroom to come open on a bus line so that I can feel safe. I’m gonna have to have another knee surgery so I have to have something that has an elevator. There are just not a lot of beds in this town for all the people trying to move forward.”
No longer ‘Homeless-friendly’
Gene Coxie, 48, said he’s been without a home “off and on” since around 2000, including the last two years in Asheville.
Raised by his grandparents in Texas, Coxie said he began traveling in his 20s, often staying with friends or in his vehicle. He’s lived in more than a half dozen states. He said he worked day labor jobs and on a truck picking up recyclables during a previous stint in Asheville.
“My problems with my hips and my knees and mental issues just got to where I just can’t hold a job no more,” he said.
Coxie said he collects Social Security Disability Insurance. He lives in a tent in the woods with his cat, Shadow, sleeping on a portable cot and making coffee and heating soup on a propane stove.
“Every morning when I leave, whatever trash I have, I take it with me down to the bus stop,” he said. “I throw it in the trash can there.”
He rides the bus to Homeward Bound’s AHOPE Day Center on North Ann Street, just north of Patton Avenue, to shower, pick up his mail and recharge his phone batteries. Shadow accompanies him in a carrier.
Speaking at AHOPE, Coxie paused as a woman yelled incoherently in the next room. “That’s the kind of stuff that you hear them talking about downtown,” he said.
“About 90 percent of the people are on something — pills or meth,” Coxie said. With methamphetamine, “you don’t sleep on it. It drives you into psychosis. You can experience it just about every day downtown.”
Some of the erratic behavior, he said, “is just normal mental problems that people have. Me, I’m manic depressive with suicidal tendencies.”
Coxie said he used crack cocaine in his 20s but stays away from hard-core drugs. He was married, has two sons, 18 and 8, and is estranged from his relatives.
“I really don’t get along with my family,” he said. “I’m the black sheep.”
Coxie said the encampment where he’s lived for about a year, off Tunnel Road in a wooded area bordered by Interstate 240, has been razed several times. “If you’re not there, you lose all your stuff,” he said.
“Most of us just go back and set right back up,” he said. But the last time, about a month ago, “they just literally dug trenches so you can’t go back.”
The property is owned by the North Carolina Department of Transportation, a city of Asheville spokeswoman said. NCDOT cleared the area after campers had been notified and given an opportunity to relocate, said a spokesman, David Uchiyama.
Uchiyama said a mini-excavator “conducted minor earthwork to deter future illegal dumping of litter and debris.”
Garbage that Coxie said previous campers left behind is strewn all over, including bags of trash, empty pill bottles and some clothing. Coxie moved his tent a short distance to an area that had not been trenched and was the only remaining camper.
He said he’s not afraid of being alone in the woods. “I’ve spent a lot of time in the mountains. I spent a lot of time on cattle ranches. There’s not much that scares me,” he said.
Coxie prefers camping instead of a shelter run by the nonprofit Western Carolina Rescue Ministries because it doesn’t allow pets and, he said, “you have to sit through a church service every day.” Coxie said he’s agnostic. Even a “low-barrier” shelter with fewer restrictions, as has been proposed for Asheville, does not appeal to him.
“I don’t do well in large groups of people,” he said. “I’m not one to instigate a fight, but I’m not going to back down if somebody wants to start one.”
Coxie said he’s been on a waiting list for public housing for a year.
As of the end of February, 1,561 households, including single adults and families, were waiting for public housing and another 3,241 were on the list for Section 8 rent-subsidy vouchers, said David Nash, executive director of the Asheville Housing Authority.
The wait could take as little as 3 months, for people working with agencies that agree to provide continued support, or up to five years for a Section 8 voucher, Nash said.
The city, Coxie said, should “stop putting up hotels and put up some actual housing.” And Asheville should consider dedicated encampments “where people like us homeless can set up.”
Coxie said he would like an apartment but also wants the flexibility to travel if he can replace a truck that broke down. Some people on the streets, he said, don’t seem to want help and “are more interested in drugs than housing.”
Coxie said Asheville used to be more “homeless-friendly.” About 20 years ago, he stayed in a large encampment off Clingman Avenue. A neighborhood restaurant allowed use of their dumpster for trash, he said, and “nobody bothered us.”
Now, Coxie said, “seems like no matter where you go, they want to run you off.”
Shoplifting, jail; meth ‘Ruined My Life’
Sandra Maddy came to Asheville from Sylva, her long-time home, about a month ago, hoping to escape the “triggers” that contributed to her addiction to methamphetamine.
She said she was recently released from a drug-related stint in jail and thought “there’d be more resources” in Asheville. Maddy, 47, spent her first days at Mission Hospital after suffering a mild heart attack, she said.
The hospital, she said, sent her to a mental health facility “because I had suicidal thoughts on top of everything.” From there, she said, she spent a couple of nights with a friend and then slept huddled to the side of a pedestrian bridge by the hospital.
“It was so bitter cold,” she said. She made her way to AHOPE the next morning with “nothing but the clothes on my back” — a Looney Tunes sweatshirt and sweatpants.
She said that since July she’s been off the drugs that nearly killed her.
“It’s ruined my life,” she said. “If I could go back and do it all over again, I would. My kids and grandkids are the ones that suffered because mama’s not around like she should be, mama’s not healthy like she should be.”
Maddy said she first experimented with meth about a decade ago and got hooked. “It felt like it just took all the pain away. It numbed me,” she said. “I had just lost everybody, lost my dad, lost my mom, and it was like nothing else mattered. And my kids were out on their own doing their own thing.”
The drugs, she said, drove her to homelessness and crime. Maddy is a convicted felon, North Carolina Inmate 0520334. Her record includes convictions for shoplifting, drug, theft, and forgery charges. She’s been in prison and most recently spent 120 days in the Jackson County jail.
“For four months, I had somewhere to go, I had three meals, I had a bed, TV,” she said of her time in jail. “It’s the reason why a lot of people repeat the same process … They’ll commit the crime again, just so to say, ‘Well, I’ve got somewhere to go now.’ ”
Maddy said meth “can play on your emotions. I could be in an upbeat mood, happy-go-lucky.” And just like that, she said, “it can make you turn pure evil.”
She said she paid $40 to $60 for a gram of meth and would inject it into her veins “just about anywhere I could find a spot on my arms, or the back of my hand, or legs … If I couldn’t find a spot, I would snort it.”
A gram would last about a day. The next day, she said, “I’d be right back doing the same thing.”
Maddy said she survived on the good will of friends, “what friends I had,” and strangers. She said she panhandled on the streets only a couple of times. “I might have gotten $10 in a day, just enough for a pack of cigarettes and something to eat.”
She stole, she said, to support her habit. “I hate saying that, but I would steal from this Walmart, take it to that Walmart, get a gift card. And then take that gift card and sell it to the person that has drugs.”
Sometimes, a drug dealer would request certain items for her to steal. “They’d give you like a little shopping list,” she said.
She said she would hide the stolen goods in a bag or a pocketbook, “just walk out of the store with it, and If you didn’t get caught, then you’re doing good.”
Maddy did get caught, and now, she said, she is banned from Walmarts.
If she had stayed in Sylva, she said, she’d be surrounded by drugs and fellow addicts. “If it weren’t for jail, I probably would be dead by now,” she said.
Maddy already sees temptations in Asheville but said she believes she can remain clean.
“I’m having to redirect my mind because I’m wanting to stay away from drugs,” she said. “Just somewhere to lay my head, that’s what matters to me right now.”
And repairing the damage she said she’s done with her family.
“It’s like, nobody wants to call me, check on me, see how I’m doing,” she said. “I haven’t got to talk to my daughter in a year. I understand that, you know. I’ve done wrong, but I want to make it better.”
Maddy said she’s been without a home of her own for five years.
“I want to be able to have my own place, even if it’s a motel room,” she said, “something that I can call mine so that I can at least have my kids come over and visit and I can see my grandkids.”
‘This ain’t Asheville no more’
Everett Keeter said he’s been on the streets since mid-November when he lost his home in Illinois.
Asked what happened, Keeter said with a laugh, “That ain’t none of your business.”
Keeter, 61, said he returned to Asheville. His mother lives in Black Mountain.
Mostly blind, he uses a walking stick and on a recent afternoon downtown was lugging a suitcase on rollers with a boom box tuned to rock music. Standing on Patton Avenue, he pointed across the street to Pritchard Park, a hangout of the unhoused.
As a child in Asheville, he said, “We used to sit there and play.” Now, he said, he sees “chaos and confusion.”
“They’ve got people sleeping up on the benches of the library,” he said. “They dope fiends all over around here. This morning, I’ve seen already two or three dope addicts, fiending. They call it fiending. They’re looking for something to get so they can get some more dope.”
At the ART bus terminal on Coxe Avenue, he said, “They be in the bathroom down there. You can’t even go in and use the bathroom. They in there doing dope.”
The previous weekend, Keeter said, he saw a woman on the sidewalk “shooting dope, broad daylight.” The next morning, “That chick’s still laying there, in that blanket.”
“I smoke my weed,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong.”
He said he has filled out applications for assistance from agencies that work with the blind. He stayed in a shelter when he first arrived but caught the flu and won’t go back.
Keeter said he sleeps in “any hole I can find. I’m out here every day, every night trying to find somewhere to lay my head.”
Securing a safe place is “hard to do around here because just like the other night somebody might run up on you,” he said.
He said he was in his sleeping bag behind the Ingles on Tunnel Road about 4:30 a.m. when another man, high on meth or fentanyl, attacked him.
“He turned into a demon, and he was coming at me, throwing shit at me, and hollering and cussing and spitting,” Keeter said. “He threw a damn trash can at me. I had to get up and move.”
A lot has changed, he said, since he was a child playing in Pritchard Park. “This ain’t Asheville no more.”
Targeted: ‘I need protection’
David Meyer said he also feels less safe.
Sitting on a bench on Haywood Street, Meyer, 58, said he’s been without a home since June 2022, after the death of his mother who handled his affairs.
“They zero in on me whenever I fall asleep outside,” Meyer said. “They’re like banging on trash cans and stuff around me.”
He said he’s been in Asheville about three years, and before that lived in Kingsport, Tenn.
“I applied for housing about a week or two ago,” he said. Meyer said he receives Social Security Disability Insurance and is on Medicaid but hasn’t been to a doctor recently.
“I go to the Emergency Room whenever I really need something,” he said.
Meyer said he’s seen more younger people on the streets lately from “California, I heard,” and “everywhere.”
“They’re flocking here like a tidal wave,” he said. “And they’re all hustlers, vagrants and hustlers, begging for money. No job, doing nothing, just living on the streets.”
“They make a target out of me,” Meyer said. “They walk up to me and say, ‘Can I use your lighter?’ And they give me one back that looks like mine. I walk down the street to use my lighter, and it’s a dead lighter.”
Some of the new people on the streets “look like they got a place to live, maybe in the county or another county,” Meyer said. “They come here every single day, 24/7, to hustle and they all disappear about 10, 11 o’clock at night and show up the next morning.”
Meyer said passersby are generous. “About 10 percent of the population in Asheville gives out money all day long.”
Meyer blamed the prevalence of meth and other potent drugs for the people he sees acting crazy.
“They’re all on it, something or another,” he said. “They’re real messed up. I think they got brain-damaged from whatever they’re doing. These drug dealers are poisoning their drugs, and they don’t give a damn.”
Meyer said he would like to see more police downtown, especially plain-clothes officers. “Every time I see cops on the beat, I say, ‘Boy, I’m glad’ because I need the protection.”
‘Just regular people’
Dethorn Graham, originally from Hickory, moved to Clyde with his foster family and then to Asheville by himself about two years ago.
He said he bounces between temporary shelters and the streets, and for a while stayed with a girlfriend. “It’s tough to find a home for someone who battles with depression,” he said.
Graham, 34, sometimes hangs out in downtown business doorways. “I often am just sitting, planning to move, and my eyes close for just a moment and someone nudges me, pointing to the ‘No Trespassing’ sign,” he said. “Nothing disrespectful, but I think, ‘Where did that come from?’ I was planning to move anyway.”
Graham said he wants good relationships with downtown merchants. “I try to find ways to build bridges, establish a presence with business owners, buy something, say, ‘Hi,’ ” he said.
Asheville is in desperate need of more affordable housing, he said. “It’s just so hard to find a place. They expect you to be able to pay just to apply. There’s a long waiting list of people dying to get into these apartments.”
Finding a job is also challenging. “I’m looking for work, but days can be complicated for me,” Graham said. “I can have difficult days with the stuff I have going on.”
Graham said most of the people he meets on the streets are from surrounding areas and gravitate to Asheville because it’s the biggest city in the region and has more resources.
He said he doesn’t believe Asheville has a disproportionate number of people on the streets compared to other cities, and that while some steal out of desperation, “A lot of them are just regular people.”
Keeping watch on the streets
Elijah Dunyah said he’s lived on the streets of Asheville twice, in 2018 and again since Thanksgiving 2022, and has seen a dramatic change.
“It’s terrible,” he said. “Methamphetamine is just ravaging, it’s just destroying this community. And the people who are putting this stuff in this community need to be taken out of this community and put somewhere.”
Dunyah, 35, said people on the streets are the most vulnerable. “I’m seeing people breaking glass bottles and breaking stuff,” he said. “Somebody can get hurt.”
He said he’s seen young women with their bags and backpacks “just disappearing” and wonders what happened to them.
“Sometimes, if there’s a girl who doesn’t have nobody, I’ll stay with her and sit with her and make sure nobody messes with her,” Dunyah said.
Asked how he came to be without a home, Dunyah, who said he practices Shamanism, said, “The Lord brought me here. My family’s gone … I’ve been traveling around for a long time.”
Arresting people on the streets is not the answer, Dunyah said. “Locking people up and putting them in Buncombe County jail is not going to help them because they don’t have the training that it takes to help people psychologically, and they do more harm than good.”
He said he tries to help people he encounters by “giving them the message, the good word. I really don’t know what we can do, but just love.”
Wish list: Public bathrooms, jobs, compassion
Three people on the streets who would only give their first names had suggestions for how Asheville can improve life for the unhoused.
– Ellie, a transgender woman from Wisconsin who has been in Asheville for a year, said the city should have garbage cans at bus stops, public phones, and public restrooms. “There’s nowhere for us to go now. I’m so tired of finding needles everywhere. It’s disrespectful to people at the bottom.”
– Otis, 63, who was sitting at Battery Park and Page avenues with a cardboard sign that said, “Anythang Will Help. Homeless,” said he worked in restaurant kitchens until he broke his foot, and has been staying with friends for the past year and a half. He said he’s on a waiting list for housing, and that the city needs “more jobs, more help for people that can’t work.”
– Bizkit, who said she was dropped off in Asheville and abandoned by her mother at age 13, said people downtown on drugs are creating a bad image for the rest of the unhoused. Now 44 and living in a tent outside of downtown, she said drug addicts should be suspended from apartment waiting lists and jailed if they’re causing trouble. “Junkies make us look bad,” she said.
Maddy, the recent arrival to Asheville who is trying to stay off meth, said there’s one solution that doesn’t cost anything: compassion.
“There’s a lot of people that look down on us. ‘Well, you should have done better,’ ” she said. “You try walking a step in our shoes.”
Freelance journalists Greg Parlier and Zane Meyer-Thornton contributed to this report.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and surrounding communities. Sally Kestin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter. Email email@example.com.
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