The Last Word


I didn’t expect this, but the article in the April issue, Random Acts of Kindness, has generated a lot of controversy and conversation.


The author, Chloe Kemp, wrote another piece about the homeless in Asheville last September: Home is Where the Heart is; it announced a multi-media show (Living on the Edge) sponsored by Pisgah Legal Services and Asheville Arts Council.


Chloe later decided to explore the idea of the power of kindness and in the process ran into a homeless man, Happy, whom she had interviewed for the “Edge” project.


Happy told her that he not only had extensive cancer but that he was still waiting for his Social Security disability to come through. As people walked by and many ignored him, Chloe lamented the lack of compassion she saw.


Within days of publication of the Kindness article, I received an email from a reader taking exception to the story. She knew and often helped the man and had a friend who had driven him home one day, only to find that he had a “very nice house.”


They both felt that he misrepresented his plight and were frustrated that he garnered attention that could have been aimed at more needy folks.


Then a couple days ago I received a phone call from the VA; the caller said he also knew Happy and that he receives VA benefits in an amount that is well above the poverty line. He also mentioned, as the emailer had, that Happy has a prosthesis but didn’t want to wear it as it was uncomfortable or difficult to use.


I plan to talk with the public relations officer from the VA to learn more about not only this particular situation, but about the programs available to help homeless vets. Stay tuned in June for that discussion.


What I want to bring up right now is the dilemma of helping people on the street; how can we (can we?) know that they are truly in need (and how do we define that)? What if we suspect they are merely going to use the money we hand over to buy alcohol or drugs? Or, in the apparent case of Happy, are actually financially stable and not homeless.


For 14 years (beginning in 1991) I was in the retail business on Lexington Avenue in downtown Asheville. In those earlier years prostitutes still hung out at the end of the street under the I-240 overpass; homeless men (mostly) trudged from Montford up Lexington asking for handouts, some on their way to the Mission on Patton Avenue.


I often offered one or two of the “regulars” a bit of work in return for some cash; or offered to feed them at a local cafe. Those offers usually sorted out who was legitimately hungry.


One thing Chloe said in her earlier article is that often what these folks want most is to be seen. I wonder if that is not part of Happy’s motivation. Not necessarily wanting pity, but wanting the rest of us to “know” them, their loss, their pain, and fear perhaps.


This must be especially strong for vets who have given so much of themselves (literally) for the rest of us only to feel tossed aside, forgotten, unappreciated.


Maybe taking a good look instead of passing by without a glance is one key; and seeing through to their humanity? And supporting programs in our community such as ABCCM’s soup kitchen or the Salvation Army or Manna FoodBank.


Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker