Point of View

The haunting death of a hardworking, homeless dancer in Raleigh

August 27, 2013 



GOCE RISTESKI — Getty Images/Hemera

Today marked the one-year anniversary of the death of my friend “Edna.” Edna was my client when I was working toward a master’s degree in social work. Edna worked hard. She worked 40 hours a week at a day care center, a job she loved. She was displaced from her home because of renovations the city commissioned to increase property values in her neighborhood. With these renovations came increased costs that Edna couldn’t pay, and, as a result, she became homeless.

Edna never complained. Each day she awoke from her “bed” behind a local retail store off Poole Road in Raleigh with a sense of gratitude. When it rained, she would dance. She believed that the rain was sent from heaven as a blessing to remind her that God provides for those on the earth.

Edna was empathetic and kind. Although she had nothing, she would somehow find small gifts for people. For me, she would choose a beautiful scarf or a necklace that matched an outfit she had seen me wearing the week before. Although Edna had no phone, she borrowed one for each of my birthdays. She always called me at midnight so that she could be the first to wish me a happy birthday.

Edna was a good friend. We would often go eat at a local restaurant and talk for hours. I was impressed at her fortitude and how she survived the extraordinary challenges of being homeless. On unbearably hot August days in Raleigh, she would often talk a public bus driver into allowing her to ride the bus all day to stay cool. She enjoyed these rides because they gave her time to talk to old friends and make new ones.

When the temperatures would turn cold, living became especially difficult for Edna. One especially chilly day, I went to check on her. This was a time when her disposition was not as it normally was. She always said that being cold was her least favorite feeling in the world.

It was on this night that she began to cry when I hugged her, her body shaking from the cold as well as from the pain of a hopeless situation. I did what I could for her that night, but no long-term solution was in sight. I was only a student with little power, few resources, limited knowledge of the system and almost no inside connections.

I took her to the housing authority and watched as they placed her name at the bottom of a five-year waiting list. After months of waiting, I drove her back and begged that she be moved up on the list. The people at the housing authority are good people, but they have very limited resources, and housing is not theirs to freely give.

As a consequence, they would watch this wonderful feeble, elderly, starving woman go back to the streets. I dreaded the upcoming winter months. Edna was getting smaller and feebler by the day. She was probably sick, but how could I know? I didn’t think she would make it through another winter. How could I just watch her die?

Turns out I would not have to worry through another winter. A couple weeks later, Edna was found dead. She had died of complications arising from chronic homelessness behind the local retail store where she had been sleeping. My beautiful friend was gone.

A year later, her death continues to haunt my mind. I know there is little I can do to change the minds of others regarding the homeless in our city. It seems as if lines have been drawn and opinions resolutely voiced. However, in her honor I believe it is important to make an attempt.

People should know that behind every homeless face is a story – one that may be different from what you expected. One that deserves to be known and appreciated.

Please remember Edna and those like her in our city. Remember the human cost of homelessness.

Finally, I beg people to remember, on the anniversary week of her death, that there was a woman who had everything working against her and still found the strength to dance.

Candice Chilton is a social worker who lives in Cary.

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