RALEIGH — The bride wore an elegant, strapless white wedding gown and a long veil. The groom opted for a dark suit brightened by a striped, sky-blue tie.
The more than 50 guests – many of them homeless – were less formally attired.
The attendance of dozens of homeless people at this particular outdoor wedding, held Saturday morning in downtown Raleigh’s Moore Square, was by design. Bridegroom Henry Chatten, 48, and his new wife, Sandra Coleman, 27, have more than enough firsthand knowledge of the day-to-day hardships of wandering the streets and wanted their ceremony to highlight the plight of the homeless.
The backdrop to their simple wedding – hosted by two community groups that support the homeless, Human Beans Together and Love Wins Ministries – is controversy over the homeless presence in Moore Square. Much of the discussion at a community meeting last month at Marbles Kids Museum, which was triggered by merchants’ complaints about the crowds that congregate outside the Moore Square Transit Center, focused on the local homeless population.
“Every girl dreams of a pretty wedding,” said Hugh Hollowell, who presided over Saturday’s wedding and is the founder and pastor of Love Wins Ministries. “Just because they were homeless at one time, that doesn’t mean they don’t dream.”
Indeed, the bride and groom actually were wed July 16 in a backyard ceremony attended only by the preacher who married them and her husband. But the couple wanted a little pomp and circumstance that they could share with their homeless friends.
Many of Henry Chatten’s friends know him only by his nickname, “Homeless Hank,” and his generosity.
“Hank is such a great guy, even when he’s homeless, he’s advocating for people,” said Derrick Brown, 47, a formerly homeless man who attended the wedding. “He would spend whatever money he had on toiletries and share them with people. Everyone here respects him and knows him.”
Chatten also has worked as a volunteer for both Love Wins Ministries and Human Beans Together, which has been feeding the homeless in Moore Square every Sunday since the organization was formed in January.
Donald Zepp, who co-founded Human Beans with his wife, Carmen, jokes that Hank is the organization’s consultant.
“He’s quite the advocate for the homeless,” Zepp said.
‘Homeless by choice’
Today the Chattens – including Sandra Chatten’s four children, ages 1 to 11 – live in a three-bedroom, government-subsidized apartment in Selma. But both Henry and Sandra have been homeless, off and on, over the past two years. In the worst of times, Sandra had to farm out her children to friends and relatives, especially since many homeless shelters won’t accept children.
Henry, who suffers from a medical disability – among other things, he suffered a massive stroke in 2010 – lives on a monthly $718 Social Security check. He has been homeless at times “by choice.”
For example, in April he surrendered his residence in a rooming house to a woman he had befriended who was struggling to find a place to live.
The woman, Edna Hall, had been living in Virginia Beach, Va., but fled to Raleigh to escape an abusive relationship.
“I was actually overwhelmed by the generosity,” said Hall, 55. “He saw I was in need.”
You also may have seen Henry on Fayetteville Street carrying a sign that says “Please help Homeless Hank.”
“If there is a need (among the homeless) and I can’t financially take care of it, I go fly the sign,” he said.
Henry met his future wife several months ago when she was homeless and he offered to let her stay at his place. What started out as a platonic relationship soon blossomed into love.
“What attracted me is he is honest,” said Sandra. “What he says is what he means. Most people aren’t like that. And he made sure my kids came first.”
During the homily of Saturday’s ceremony, Hollowell noted that he usually counsels the couple at the altar that they’ll be able to work their way through the hard times.
“But I don’t have to say that today, because Hank and Sandra know what it means to go through the hard times,” he said. “They know what it means to go through hell on earth. And they have come out on the other side.”