History of Asheville’s homeless: humanity on trial
by Rob Neufeld
“I admire my daddy more than any other human on this planet,” Viola (not her real name) told me. “He no longer admires me.”
Now she’s homeless. Her parents, who live on the farm where she’d grown up in these mountains, have cut her off. Her children live with her in-laws, and she doesn’t get to see them anymore.
Viola is one of the people I met at AHOPE, a day center in Asheville that gives the dispossessed access to a shower and a phone, a place to get mail, storage facilities, a community, and help in connecting to jobs, housing, and other needs.
Viola’s backpack weighed about 40 pounds. She wore three layers of clothing to withstand the cold spell that made shelters such as the WNC Rescue Mission and the Salvation Army’s Center of Hope declare last Tuesday and Wednesday “blue code” nights—nights on which nobody would be turned away from a sleeping place.
Viola had arrived in Asheville just a few days ago. At AHOPE, as people were gathering for coffee and comfort, she made a friendly comment about how the guy I was talking to looked like Hagrid from “Harry Potter.” It enabled me to introduce myself, and be gifted with her story.
“My deep, deep fear,” Viola told me toward the end of our talk, “is that happiness was not meant for me.”
This “Visiting Our Past” column looks backward from the current era of distress and fear to see the people behind the impersonal characterizations that plague them.
A placed called home
Viola grew up in a place where kids, at an early age, learned to be tough. When she was seven, her two brothers tied her arms and legs to upper and lower bunks, chained CO2 cartridges to her, and told her they were bombs.
“I believed them. I didn’t know what a CO2 cartridge was. It looked like a bomb to me. I thought, ‘I’m going to blow up.’”
“Daddy beat the s--- out of them when he got home,” Viola added.
When she was 11, Viola ventured out with her neighbor, an older girl, who used an overnight with Viola as an excuse to sneak out with her older boyfriend. She also hooked Viola up with her boyfriend’s buddy.
Eight miles down the road, they stopped, and Viola said, “I’m out,” and walked four miles, “barefooted because my flip-flops broke, and I got very lucky because this mail lady picked me up.”
She sneaked into her bed, and an hour later, “here comes Mamaw. ‘Don’t you ever do that to me again!’ she said. And it broke my heart.”
“Mamaw was my rock, shelter, and refuge,” Viola attested. When Viola’s parents fought and separated, Mamaw took Viola in with her.
Then, not long after the sneaking-out disappointment, Mamaw died—quickly, of cancer, without having picked up a cigarette in her life.
“My whole world crashed down,” Viola said. “She died four days before Thanksgiving, her favorite holiday.” It “was when she could cook for everybody and the whole family could get together…We’ve never all been together since she died.”
Viola started doing drugs. When she was 13, “someone very close to me broke my rib,” she said, “and doctors put me on pain pills,” which became an addiction, abetted by medication for broken bones she later suffered.
Viola married and had two children. Her husband spoiled her rotten, she said, buying her clothes, jewelry and flowers.
“I was a good wife and a good mother,” she recalled. “My kids were always clean. They always had nice clothes…I sang them, ‘Mama Loves You’ every night…Walk, and rock, and breast-feed, and sing ‘Mama Loves You” (to the tune of “Jesus Loves You”) at night.”
Viola got a job hauling scrap metal and working on cars for her father-in-law. She helped her father on his landscaping jobs. Growing up, she’d shared the tasks of the family farm, with its produce, pigs, chickens, goats, and rabbits. She had skills.
“I think rednecks are some of the most practical people you’ll ever meet because we can make something out of nothing,” Viola said.
Viola’s big downfall came when her husband started spending their money on drugs. They separated (to later divorce); he saw other women, she suspected; and he went to prison over drugs.
She committed a transgression that turned his family against her; and later lost her own parents’ support after she married a man who was brilliant, sexy, a petty thief, and homeless. She’d met him at a drug rehab place.
Today, he’s in prison; and she’s on the streets alone, carrying a knife that excludes her from shelters.
“I love deep and I love with all my heart,” Viola said. “I forgive very easily,” which may be true for everyone but herself.
Two friends on the mend
Kirk Faulkner was living in a shack with no running water, provided by a man for whom Kirk ran a backhoe, when, one night, Kirk got hit by a truck while walking down 25/70 in Hot Springs to see his mom and sister.
The vehicle, a pick-up truck, Kirk guesses, “come out of nowhere, come off the road, and I stepped back with my left foot and they caught me on my right foot and knocked me to the ground.”
“I went a good 10, 15 feet and hit the gravel,” he recalls. “And then my niece just happened to come by about five minutes later and seen me in the ditch and called an ambulance; and the police came and asked who it was. I said I have no idea. It happened so quick and it was dark and all I seen was lights and the ground.”
Kirk was no longer able to do work for his landlord, and was evicted.
Still healing, Kirk has become homeless in Asheville, where he gets his care. His sister is focused on caring for their mother, who is ill.
One of the toughest things about being homeless, Kirk says, is people’s attitudes. “Just because you dress a little different than them, they kind of walk around you…When you say, ‘Good morning,’ they just keep walking.”
At AHOPE, Kirk met with an advisor, who devoted three hours to giving Kirk help with job applications.
AHOPE also helped Jim Parton, Kirk’s new best friend, on his path to housing.
Jim had been a painter with his own company for many years, when drug addiction did him in. Three years ago, he told himself, that’s the end, and went to Neil Dobbins, a rehab center in Asheville, and became a success story.
Neil Dobbins also diagnosed him with bipolar disorder, enabling him to manage it.
Growing up in Pisgah View Apartments in the 1970s had been a survival story, not just because of the condition that set him apart, but also because of the environment. He got tired of not fitting in, and getting beat up on.
When he was 12, he said, “there were two brothers who picked on me every day, and I finally got to where I was tired of that. So they jumped me one morning and I beat both of them.
“And after I beat those two boys up, I started getting respect from people around. So everybody had to try me out. It seemed that I fought everybody in that project… I grew up fast. After I started fighting, I got pretty good at it, and then I got to where I kind of enjoyed it because, I guess, it was a release thing for me.”
Through all this, there was his mother, Roxanna Louise Padgett, who called him “Sweetie” all the time, though Jim makes it clear that she was the sweetie.
“She wouldn’t preach to me,” he related, “she would just explain things.” She helped other people, including homeless people.
This past November, Jim’s mom died, and Jim remained sober. He was already rebuilding bridges with his children, and had found ways to deal with depression and temptation. He prays. “It takes 90 seconds to re-set,” he says.
“My mother wanted to see me clean and in my eyes she’s always looking down on me,” Jim confessed.
Rob Neufeld writes the weekly “Visiting Our Past” column for the Citizen-Times. He is the author of books on history and literature, and manages the WNC book and heritage website, “The Read on WNC.” Follow him on Twitter @WNC_chronicler; email him at RNeufeld@charter.net.
AHOPE Day Center at 19 N. Ann St. in Asheville is one of the programs of Homeward Bound, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending homelessness in Buncombe and Henderson Counties. Visit homewardboundwnc.org. Call the Day Center at 828.252.8883.