Taylor Batten

Metamorphosis on Tryon Street

Nearly every day, week after week and year after year, as I walked back to the Observer from grabbing a sandwich, I’d see the same homeless man.

He moved around a bit, but usually he’d be sitting on the sidewalk in front of St. Peter’s Catholic Church on South Tryon Street, just south of the Green. He looked like hell. He wore the same tattered clothes everyday and looked at you with bleary eyes. He was clearly in a fog.

“Help a guy out?” this nameless man would slur as I walked by. “Got any change?” he’d grunt to passersby. Sometimes he was lying on the sidewalk asleep. He appeared to be the definition of the hard-core homeless, impossible to help.

Last week, for a Thanksgiving Day package, Observer editorial board members fanned out across the city to talk to people who were getting help with their struggles. Amid our plenty, we wanted to hear stories of simple gratitude.

I visited Moore Place, the apartments for the formerly chronically homeless off North Graham Street. Director Caroline Chambre had lined up interviews for me with three residents. Chambre and I stepped off the elevator and a man was standing there.

“This is Richard Stover,” Chambre said, introducing me.

I did a double-take. This was the man from the St. Peter’s sidewalk, I thought, but he looked different. Alert. Clear-eyed. Engaged. Smiling.

In his tiny apartment, a sober Stover told me the story of his lifetime of bad choices.

He had moved to Charlotte from Newport News, Va., as a boy in 1967. His mother had died and he was living with his father. He started drinking heavily as a teenager. Why? “Watching my parents. And it went down the line from there.”

He became an alcoholic and frequently snorted cocaine. He held a series of jobs at Radiator Specialty, Kmart, a pawn shop and Bojangles’. He lived in the Wilmore neighborhood and nearby for almost 20 years. But drugs, alcohol and a bad marriage pushed him to the streets in 2002.

There he stayed for 12 years, sleeping on concrete every night, almost never seeking shelter. Didn’t want to play by their rules.

A social worker frequently saw Stover on the ground in front of St. Peter’s and took an interest. She got Stover on the Moore Place waiting list, and two months ago, after about a year’s wait, he got in.

Now Stover has his own keys to his own apartment. He sleeps on a bed, and has a little kitchen and sitting area. The only drugs he takes now, he says, is his prescription for his bad knees.

He’s grateful.

“If you don’t have to be out there, don’t go out there. It’s a jungle out there. It’s hell, I can put it that way,” Stover told me. “Constantly moving around and around trying to keep warm. Then when you do get warm, you can’t sit in one place too long because the cops don’t like that.”

Hours after I interviewed Stover at Moore Place, I was walking down South Tryon. I walked past St. Peter’s. There was no one on the sidewalk out front. I smiled, knowing where he had gone.

A few days after that, I walked past St. Peter’s again and there he was, sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk. My heart sank.

“Richard? What are you doing here?”

He looked up, bright-eyed, stone sober. “Oh, hi!”

“What are you doing here?”

“What am I going to do, sit in my apartment all day? Watch TV? I just like to say hello to people.”

“How’d you get here?”

“Rode my bike.” He pointed to his right, where his bike was leaning against a railing. “Only took about 30 minutes!”

“Are people giving you money?”

“A couple. But mostly I just want to be outside, say hello to people.”

We talked for a minute and then I said goodbye.

“Be safe,” I said.

“Have a blessed day!” he said.