I called about a room listed on the Internet. Yet by the time I drove thirty minutes to get there, it was gone, already rented. The guy who had offered it told me I could spend the night on the couch. I did, tired out with Mission curled up by my legs. I got up and called from a list given to me by social services seaching for some kind of shelter. One was a place called AHOPE. It was a day shelter and it turned out I needed accessment to see how they could help me. I walked there. It was about three miles, all up or downhill in these NC streets. It only took me just over an hour. I was glad I had slept well the night before.
'A yellow house. It is just below the Salvation Army. You cannot miss it.'
What I could not miss were the homeless, standing on the sidewalk and front yard. Too many for me to count, gathered into a cluster of men and women drinking coffee from white styroform cups with clouds of cigarette smoke rising above their heads into a large oak tree in the dirt front yard and along the sidewalk. I was tired already and glad I had found the right place. If I can possibly get lost, I will.
I walked up to curious eyes and stares. I walked around back and into an open door, seeking the warmth and a cup of coffee. Inside were many more men and women, and someone calling out the words of 'container run'.I had no idea what that meant. I got my coffee and eyed the stale iced donuts beside the urn. A large bowl of sugar and a jug of watery milk sat with the open boxes. Loaves of white bread lay in a cluster with plastic bins of whipped margarine, pale purple jelly and clumpy peanut butter. An old toaster was being used by a huge black guy wafting alcohol fumes. The heavy metal door I pushed open again and walked out a lit a cig. Immediately I was asked by a young woman for one which I handed out.
'God, a cowboy killer.Thank you. Can I buy a couple more for a dollar?'
I eyed my open pack. It was less than half full.
'I don't have enough to spare any more.'
She was so young, I thought. Maybe twenty, yet her eyes looked like they had seen too much of the bad side of life already. Short dark hair, with a group of colored tatoos around her pale neck and down her arms, She had loads of makeup on with a short denim skirt and a back tee shirt with the words Looking for a bitch? Here I am....
I walked back around to front. An older man, wearing many layers of clothes told me to get on the porch.
'It is about nine. If you want to check in, they got to get your name and all. Where did you sleep last night?'
'On a couch at a house. It was warm, anyway.'
'Got a place to stay tonight?'
'Nope, not yet.'
'Where are your from?'
'I just moved here from St Pete, Florida Labor Day weekend. I have been sleeping most of the time in my car.'
'They can tell you where to go here. They help folks here. All of us come. They feed you some here and there is plenty of other places. What is your name?'
'Suzy. Just call me Suzy.'
‘Nice to meet ya. My name is Billy.’
The front door opened and the crowd moved closer to the porch. Smells of alcohol, unwashed people and clothes wafted all around me. I made it into the hall, greeted by a young bearded man asking my name, age, and where I slept last night. I muttered the answers and walked on into the hall. A counter was staffed by several volunteers. Most were young, around twenty. I walked up to a young bearded guy with a clipboard.
'Hi, my name is Suzy. This is my first time here and I called earlier this morning. I am here to see if you can help me. I have been sleeping in my car. I need a clean place to stay and a job.'
'I think I talked to you this mornin'. It is too busy right now for me to help you. Just chill out and have coffee and eat some donuts or whatever is over there. We will try to get to you when we have the time.'
I added more of the watery tan coffee to my cup at the large urn on the table. More stares came my way. But at least it was warm inside.
Billy walked up and grinned at me.
'You can get a shower here, mail, and eat when they got it. I think they got lunch today but no tellin' what it might be.'
'What is a container run?'
Laugher came from his unshaven salt and pepper face.
'They let you store things here in a plastic bin. You can keep about anything in them and it will not get stolen. I keep my papers and some of my clothes here so I don't have to carry them around all day. You just have to get to them when they let you. It is only certain times of the day.'
'Oh, I did not know.'
'Where are you gonna stay tonight Suzy?'
'I do not know yet. I got a SUV I been sleeping in with my dog and cat. It is kinda crowded since I got everything left I own in it. It is starting to stink some.'
''They close this place at noon. You can eat downtown at the ABCCM (Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry). They serve soup and sandwiches. You can eat all you want and get seconds if you want to. They can help you too. They ain't as nice as here though. They shove that Christian bull shit right down your throat. But at least they try to help you some.'
'Do I have to walk very far? My legs are hurting already. I guess they ain't got used to the hills here. Florida is flat, ya know.'
'Nope. It ain't a mile. I think you better go to the Mission down the street to sleep tonight. You got to sign in early to get a bed. You are a girl. They will let you stray as long as you can stand it. You sleep in bunk beds there. They feed you supper at five. It is pretty clean. Just don't let nobody there mess with you. Some of these women ain't much.'
I began to worry more. I had about three dollars cash in my pocket. I had no gas left in the SUV.
Sleep in a Mission? I remembered the stories I heard from the homeless back in Georgia. At the top of the list was lice and stealing. I did not want to go to such a place. I did not know there was much worse ahead for me........