This story begins innocently enough with a movie attendance in downtown Asheville. We exited the theater into a darkening and cold early evening approaching our car when a man approached us for money. This is not an uncommon occurrence in our downtown. It is not against the law provided the query is made only once and no aggression or unwanted persistence is present. Such was definitely the case with this man. I raised my eyes to his query silently noting his dark brown jacket, his speech, his general affect and his very slender physicality. I thought to offer him work in return for honoring his money request any maybe getting him ahead a bit, but it was nearing dark and the work we needed doing at the inn was in our garden.
I truly wanted to help this man but my work as a nurse of many years gave me every reason to believe that while he was, as stated, hungry, any funds I provided to him would not be dedicated toward food purchase. While I did want to help him, I did not wish to be any part of him securing substances that would not abate his physical hunger, could prove deadly or further disable his chances of a better life. I talked to him directly, said that I did not want him to be hungry and I would return with food for him.
Honoring my word, we went to a local restaurant, got the food and returned back to the spot outside the theater holding my container, flatware and napkin. I did not see him. My husband and my sister were with me. As we circled the block, all of us were looking for him. A promise is a promise.
Many of us have done the same. Asheville is known for its humanity to those folks in our society that struggle with mental health issues, hunger, addiction issues. Each winter, vans of volunteers scour our streets on bitterly cold nights trying to locate those still out in the elements offering transportation to local shelters. I’d read about one of these volunteer vans who’d encountered a man who’d promised he’d allow himself to be transported to a local shelter if they would just drop him by a convenience store first. They did as he requested and while they waited in the van for him so happy to have made certain one less person would freeze under a bridge in Asheville, he left through a back door exit denying the help they so wanted to offer him. The real of it, as experienced by these kind souls out driving through our streets seeking to offer real help on an evening they could have spent warm at home, is that this problem of homelessness, hunger, disenfranchisement and all the associated ills is complex and not easily dealt with.
There are no easy answers, there is no one answer. Should I have given the money, would he have eaten with it or done further damage to himself? Is that that mine to discern like some mighty judge in the world? All these questions and many others swirled through my head as I drove around the block in the dark holding the food parcel searching for the man I knew had withdrawn into the darkness.