From behind me, I can hear a hissing, rhythmic, like breathing. I know I ought not to turn my head at the source of the foreign sound, but I do. Stephie and I sit at a T-shaped configuration of narrow folding tables, draped in fading-red, plastic tablecloths with borrowed Christmas centerpieces. 12 single mattresses line the walls of the office space, turned into temporary housing for 12 adult women for 12 nights.
Some of the women are already tucked into their makeshift beds of donated linens, pillows and blankets, the donated supper eaten, their teeth and hair brushed in the mirror of the office’s half bath. A couple have books open. Another a stuffed animal laid on her chest. Another a phone she is scrolling like I do at night to lull myself to sleep.
And the woman behind me is breathing into a machine for asthmatics, and I wonder if she can’t use it during the day because she needs electricity for it to operate. It hisses as she catches breaths into her lungs. Everyone has placed her shoes at the bottom of her bed to mark her space.
Stephie Bowers, my dear, smart assistant, and I (Pierrette here) had volunteered the Sunday evening before Christmas to offer companionship during the supper hour to these 12 women. We perched, backs straight, at the narrow tables, trying to feel at ease and to offer respite, if only with a kindly look into someone’s eyes and to communicate, I see you. You are cared for.
These women have done this before, repeatedly, every 12 days, sometimes for over a year, before they have permanent housing. They move the entirety of their belongings and their bodies to find respite, a meal, and a warm, safe night’s sleep in church facilities across Asheville as part of Homeward Bound’s Room in the Inn program.
“Room in the Inn is Homeward Bound’s shelter to home program for women experiencing homelessness in Asheville. Since 2001, Room in the Inn has partnered with local faith communities who open their doors and provide meals, hospitality, companionship and a warm bed for up to twelve women each night of the week. Each week, Room in the Inn creates a safe haven for women while they await permanent housing placement.” (from HB’s website)
One of these 12-day cycles falls during the last days of December when faith communities serve their own congregations. The Asheville realtor board, Land of the Sky Association of Realtors (LOTSAR), stepped in several years ago, to fill this need.
I also spent Christmas Day night, overnight with a realtor colleague (Hi, Annie Rasheed!). We talked real estate and being single, smart women of a certain age, and then we nodded off in shifts in our clothes under thin, polyester blankets and heat pump air. We prepared the women a breakfast cornucopia of bananas, apples, yogurt, microwave bacon, bagels, pop tarts, you name it, but what they wanted was a smoke or to brush their teeth in privacy and a cup of coffee with cream. Exactly.
I do not celebrate Christmas any longer. I used to have jaded, edgy opinions about capitalism and fake, family togetherness and who’s-in, who’s-out religious beliefs. Oh my. That’s so harsh, it’s funny!
Now, in sincerity, this year of 2019, I became perfectly at ease with the fact that I don’t celebrate Christmas. Instead, I soaked up, like a winter sun, the generosity of spirit and resources that flows for about six weeks as fall turns to winter, every year since the beginnings of ancient western time.
I was particularly gratified to begin to learn about Homeward Bound in depth and to begin to find ways to support these women. The underlying core value of Homeward Bound, in my estimation, is the concept of Housing First. It “means that everyone has a human right to live inside,” regardless of circumstances, unconditionally.
There is so much to the causes and effects of homelessness in our city and in our country. It is an overdetermined societal reality that is intimately personal. Politics, religion, drug addiction, poverty, population growth, racism, the shift in our GNP from products to service, mental illness, a laissez faire economy, greed: these, and more, all form a matrix that has caused and contributed to the fact that on any given night in Asheville, 500 people are experiencing homelessness. (From HB’s website).
I have owned three homes with an ex-husband with his mother’s antique Christmas-tree skirt and his first family’s fading ornaments, moving with us. Before that marriage, I lived in an attic apartment, the December walls as thin as my checkbook, shivering myself to keep warm and sleep under K-Mart blankets and a Santa knit hat, pulled tight over my ears.
The days surrounding Christmas 1978 (when I was eighteen years old), I lived in a rusty, metal van with a skinny boyfriend, our German Shepherd, and our bare possessions, the metal’s coldness an aching reminder of my homelessness.
In Asheville, of those individuals experiencing homelessness, “45% of them are veterans. 7% of them are children. Very few of them have come to Asheville homeless: 75% had housing in Buncombe County before they became homeless and many of them are from this area originally.” (From HB’s website)
Now, I own, alone, a little hip roof house on a little rise of hill with a shaded, long front porch from which my Labrador, Jack, and I can bark and wave to passers-by. An orchid, bare of bloom, has taken in the eastern rising sun, shimmering through my living room window, each day since I bought it for myself as a home-warming. Last year, it put out two new leaves; this spring, new roots began to push up from base; and today, the day after Christmas, she is putting out a single stalk upon which a feathery-thin flower will rise.