Josh Shaffer

Betty Brock, homeless helper who lived in a van, dies at 72

Betty Brock waits on a customer of Granny's Variety Store, a licensed business that she runs out of the van where she lives with her son. She parks at Moore Square in downtown Raleigh. Brock died Monday, March 21, 2016.
Betty Brock waits on a customer of Granny's Variety Store, a licensed business that she runs out of the van where she lives with her son. She parks at Moore Square in downtown Raleigh. Brock died Monday, March 21, 2016. 2010 News & Observer file photo

For most of the past 20 years, Betty Brock lived inside a van parked at Moore Square, sleeping on pallets in the back or reclining in the front seat under a pile of blankets.

She knitted, crocheted and worked crossword puzzles from her home on wheels. She got by selling bottled water, chips and soda out the driver’s side window, charging phones from her cigarette lighter for $1. She played mother hen to the rest of the city’s homeless, who set up folding chairs outside her white Chevrolet and learned to live on nothing.

Often, other down-and-outers would knock on her van at night, asking for a spare blanket. She always shared.

But before she died Monday at age 72, unable to walk, Brock found some of the comfort she had long craved. For her final weeks, she lived under a roof with walls, plumbing and heat – warm in her own bed.

“She got her wish,” said Alice McGee, director of the homeless ministry Church in the Woods. “She did not die in her van.”

That Brock spent more than a decade using a motor vehicle as an oversized wheelchair speaks not only to the relentlessness of poverty and poor health, but also to the drastic change that has swept downtown Raleigh.

Brock chose her perch on South Person Street because it sat across from the Salvation Army, where friends would bring meals to her van. My former colleague Ruth Sheehan interviewed Brock inside the Dodge she drove in 2007 and reported that it smelled fine inside despite having an elderly woman eating, washing and using a portable toilet inside.

Only three years later, in 2010, she faced a new challenge from Raleigh’s parking meters after being allowed to park free with a handicapped placard. At that point, her 46-year-old son Robert lived in the passenger seat alongside her. An ex-convict who had trouble finding work, Robert fed the meters for his mother. But $9 a day proved too costly for a family that lived on quarters. A few years later, the Salvation Army pulled up stakes for Capital Boulevard around the time the city deemed homeless feedings “out of control,” its plans for a revamped Moore Square in the works. Brock moved her rolling home where she could.

Years ago, she explained that her homelessness grew out of her husband Dempsey’s cancer. Brock said she sold their mobile home to bury him, a Korean War veteran living on disability. She later learned the military would have paid for the funeral, but by then she had used some of the leftover money as a down payment on a smaller trailer. Bills arrived, but the widow’s benefit she expected did not. She wrote bad checks and got arrested many times.

But on the street, Brock looked after the others who life had kicked and forgotten. When a homeless person went missing, the police asked Brock for help. Often, she drove to the mountains with money from her water and cigarette sales and brought clothes and supplies to homeless people there. With a laptop she saved for, Brock posted to Facebook about derelicts in trouble:

“Anyone who happens to see this,” she wrote March 5. “If you go by Poole Road and the 44 bridge or Leesville Road at 540 tomorrow and or Monday and you see Robert the art guy please tell him to call his mother.”

In 2008, McGee said, Church in the Woods helped her find an apartment. But she refused to go. She wanted to give what money she received in disability to her children and grandchildren. Instead, she lived another eight years in the van.

“I loved her to death, but my Mama was a stubborn woman,” said her daughter, Paula Perry. “That’s what she wanted to do. Everybody down there loved her.”

The mobile home came available only about a month ago. Family members and volunteers with Church in the Woods fixed the floors and the windows, scrubbed the mold and found furniture for her. Unable to get out of bed, sick in a variety of ways, Brock asked for a feeder so she could watch the birds through her window.

One of those volunteers, Melissa Champlion, told me that her son still wears the brown hat with a cross on the front that Brock knitted for him when he was 6 years old. He is 20.

“All she wanted to do,” Champlion said, “was get out of the van. She died in a bed. She died in her own place. She died warm. She died happy.”