By Hayden Robinson
Emily Witherspoon, one of Asheville’s more than 500 homeless residents, sits in the parking lot of Haywood Street Congregation with a bag of belongings at her side and a small pencil box full of flower wreaths she fingers through.
“People usually think we’re tweaking when we have all our stuff on the ground,” Witherspoon says. “But really we’re just making sure we have all our things together. That’s all we have.”
While drawing flowers on her jeans with a marker, Witherspoon recalls her time at Warren Wilson College studying yoga and therapy. But she left the school after a short while, she says, as mental illness created difficulties with her long-term memory.
Suddenly a hissing sound comes from Doug Short as he opens a can of pineapples with his pocketknife. The friend of Witherspoon sits nearby, chiming in periodically.
“People just ignore us sometimes. Like, I’ve had bus drivers completely drive past me at the bus stop,” Short says. “Makes it hard to get the stuff that we need sometimes because people will run us off.”
Short says people tend to discriminate against him just because of his looks, such as during a recent visit to a local cafe. “I was able to get a cheap biscuit at the counter and I asked where the bathroom was,” he recalls. “But when I went back there, one of the girls working told me I wasn’t allowed into the bathroom because ‘She knew what I’d do.’”
The two have no shortage of anecdotes from their experiences on the street. They share details about which areas are safe to sleep near, which business owners are hostile toward homeless people and where the best places are to go “flying,” or asking for money with signs on the roadside.
Witherspoon says some men will approach and proposition her for sexual acts in exchange for cash or food. “I know that some ladies do that, and that’s fine; they can make their own decisions,” Witherspoon says. “But I don’t, and it’s just really disrespectful that [men] just assume I will because I’m out here with nothing.”
After finishing his pineapples, Short says he has little to no access to basic resources — even small things like can openers for the food he sometimes receives from donations.
“It’s hard to even find drinking water without walking into a business,” Short says. “We rarely get access to microwaves to heat food up, people will shoo me away while I’m trying to rest, we spend all day walking around, and there’s no places to sit.”
Short says he used to suffer from opioid addiction acquired after a surgery years ago but has since tried to stay sober. “I see what people mean when it comes to our community and drug use,” he says. “I hate seeing [needle litter] everywhere too, and we both try our best to pick up after people. But I honestly don’t think our community uses drugs any more or less than middle-class folks.”
“We both have lost, like, four of our friends to opioids,” he adds. “Last month, four of them died from overdose. It’s heartbreaking.”
“Most of the time, I can be content enough without using drugs,” Witherspoon said. “I’m sober now and try not to waste money on it. It’s horrible to imagine, but when you’re living out here on your own, what else are we supposed to do?”
Witherspoon says the hardest part of being homeless is not being able to spend time with her three sons, who currently live with her ex-husband.
“I know he doesn’t want anything to do with me anymore,” she says. “I just want to see my boys and spend time with them.”
Witherspoon follows Sufism, an Islamic discipline that focuses on divine love through personal experience of God. She says her beliefs reinforce her ability to live with very little, and it has never really bothered her that she has no permanent housing.
“I know I’m on the street and don’t really have a house, but home is wherever you make it,” Witherspoon says. “This is my home. I just want to be treated like a person.”