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Lessons Learned from Paula C. September 19, 2012

Posted by abhomeless in Uncategorized.


There was an early afternoon memorial service this past Monday in Asheville, a crowd of people scurrying to enter the sanctuary under gray, rainy skies.  A few folks drove up in nice cars – BMWs, Toyotas, Hondas, Subarus.  Others walked through the rain, backpacks closed as tightly as possible to protect belongings, a few had raincoats, a handful wore baseball caps in an attempt to stay dry.  Settling into the pews, it was quiet, somber, as is often the case when the altar holds photographs of someone no longer within our reach.  Several people were crying, everyone attentive to the sacredness of the space surrounding those pictures, aware of the loss they represented.

Paula C. died last week.  Unlike most of us, though, Paula died without having keys to a place to call home.  She was known to many who worked in the homeless services’ system here in Asheville, because she had been homeless and in and out of the Asheville area since 2007.  In the many stories told on Monday, her life in Asheville took shape.  A woman of few words, she spoke only when she had something she deemed worthwhile to say.  One of her trademarks was the walkman radio/music player attached to her almost all the time, with headphones constantly on.  She was a camper, unable to manage the rules and close quarters of night shelters because of on-going struggles with fragile mental health and substance abuse.  That was Paula’s life here, until just a few months ago.

She showed up at Homeward Bound’s A HOPE Day Center last spring, almost unrecognizable to staff who had known her for years.  Drastic weight drop, bad color, shaky arms and legs: clearly sick, and also clear.  Clear, as in sober, and truly cognizant of what was happening around her.  She’d been gone from Asheville for a few months, and had come home sober and ready for something else.  Ready for stability, ready to create a life with mental and physical health support, looking for the community essential to living out her sobriety.  With help from Homeward Bound, the Western North Carolina Aids Project and others, Paula did just that: began a new life.  Paula’s new life was a life marked by clearness, sobriety, and – still – only a few words.  There were some other differences, too.  She took off her headphones.  She smiled.  She laughed.  She became a loyal friend.  She came into Homeward Bound’s Room in the Inn shelter, sleeping each night in a local faith community’s building surrounded by warmth and care, and safe from the dangers of the streets.  Paula was even in line for an apartment of her own, scheduled to move in literally a week from the morning she died.  She almost got those keys.

During Paula’s memorial service, the Room in the Inn Director, Sharon Blythe, talked about the lessons she learned from Paula: to speak only when really necessary; to listen to those around you; to care for the people you are with day in and day out; to understand family includes all kinds of people; to advocate honestly for healthy decisions about safe sex; to seek support from your community.  I was fortunate to know Paula these past few years as well, and I want to add one more lesson to those: impatience.  Paula got impatient with those whose intentional violent and aggressive behavior made it difficult for her and others experiencing homelessness to be safe.  She was impatient with the limited resources available for affordable housing for her and the many in our community whose income comes no where close to what the rental market demands.

Paula C. leaves us with many lessons.  So do the 9 other individuals who have died in our community this year without a home of their own.  Let’s take Paula’s impatience and allow it to fuel advocacy.  Advocate for affordable housing for everyone in our community, support the work of the City Council’s Affordable Housing Committee, volunteer with homelessness service providers who work day in and day out to help our neighbors move out of night shelters and off the streets into safe, stable housing.  Find your place in the work to end homelessness here in this place we all call home.



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