Josh Shaffer

In Raleigh, a five-star feast for the homeless who survived – Shaffer

Steve and Laura Swayne hosted a five-star feast at their home in West Raleigh on Friday night – a semi-formal affair with a menu to satisfy the choosiest palate: filet mignon, asparagus and cinnamon ice cream for dessert.

To savor this spread, they invited a collection of guests with stories as exquisite as the menu: the addict who survived Raleigh’s crack houses; the mother who endured its winters in a tent, the jobless man who bunked on any spare sofa.

They arrived in coats, ties and sparkling gowns – some of them borrowed – ready to celebrate the gift of another sunrise. Some had never eaten so well. Some can remember not eating at all. But as I watched David Toon strut out of the Wilmington Street shelter, his black shoes shined to mirrors, a stingy-brim hat on his head and a cane in his left hand, I saw a man brush the dark years off his shoulder like so much lint.

“I think it’s fantastic,” said Toon, 61, who will soon move into his own place after three homeless years. “Been years.”

The idea came to the Swaynes from a parable in Luke, which they heard in a sermon at Church on Morgan, a satellite branch of Edenton Street United Methodist Church. In the parable, a wealthy man throws an elaborate party with all the trimmings but finds his well-heeled friends too busy to attend. So he tells his servant, “Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in hither the poor, and the maimed, and the halt, and the blind ... Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.”

Thus they filled their home, and with the church’s help, they asked their friend the Rev. Phil Brickle from Lost Sheep Ministry to round up more than two dozen guests, all of them ex-residents of Raleigh’s toughest corners. Brickle drove a van full of such guests to the Swaynes’ door, sporting a red coat, white slacks and polka-dotted bow-tie.

“We’ve got singers in this van,” he boasted, a chauffeur to the homeless prom. “We’ve got gift cards. We’ve got photo booths. We’ve got a praise dancer and a praise mime. We’re just going to celebrate. We’re all survivors.”

Were I better-dressed, I might have joined the party, but I envy whichever guest got to sit next to Victor Norman, who is by anyone’s definition a hoot. Raleigh knows him as a street evangelist who has been known to preach with a trash can as a lectern, flailing his arms and waving a handkerchief. At 59, he works for the state Department of Transportation and lives in a mobile home park on Rush Road, and he considers himself a lucky man delivered from the worst fate.

“It was rough, buddy,” said Norman. “I was homeless nine years. My ambition was drugs. I did all kinds of drugs. My last nine years, I was strictly a crack fiend. I looked in the mirror and I saw myself and I didn’t like it, so I signed myself into Raleigh Rescue Mission. They said, ‘Son, when you walked through the door, that’s when the help started.’ 

Of the guests, I think Tammy Vaughan may enjoy it most. At 43, she lives in an apartment after fighting for disability for her bone-density disease, diabetes and high-blood pressure. While she applied for help, she lived in a tent behind the Carlie C’s on U.S. 70, where her health declined in the snow. Now, with a wheelchair, she said, “I can walk a little bit in my apartment.”

Being wildly fortunate, I eat filet mignon maybe twice a year. I own four or five sport coats and can occasionally be coaxed into wearing them. So I pause today to think of this happy group of guests, some of whom, I imagine, sampled the best cut of steak for the first time, and who knotted a tie around their neck for the first night since the junior prom. And I think of the wealthy man from the parable, made richer by what he gave away.