"I told them that you can't help me unless you've been through what I've been through," Rocky says before tilting his head slightly to the left. He touches a cigarette to his lips and calmly inhales. The small cross tattoo on his neck shrinks slightly. "You know what I mean?"
I discovered Rocky's charcoal drawings on his blog a few hours prior to our first conversation. I remembered seeing him—head down, earbuds in—drawing at the corner of the table in the main room of the Love Wins house during my first visit a week earlier. I didn't say anything to him at the time, choosing instead to leave the office quietly and politely. Only now, hanging out with Rocky during his smoke break, did I realize that my behavior—passing in silence—is what he and others hope to escape at Love Wins.
The afternoon we finally spoke, I'd left my house to run a few errands in Raleigh. When I realized that the Love Wins house would be open for another hour, I stopped by. I knew Rocky would be there. He was at the same corner of the same table. "I saw your drawings on your blog and came to check them out in person," I said.
He had a hard time believing not only that someone had seen his work on the Internet but that I'd come to the house just to meet him. He grabbed his oversized portfolio and explained all the drawings that had not been sold for next to nothing, traded for cigarettes or stolen from his tent. "That's mine, too," he said, pointing to a framed drawing on the wall, the only one I saw that afternoon with color. "I like simple, though. I like to stick with black and white." We all do, I think, but we also know that lives are lived within the gaps and the grays.
Confronting poverty and the lack of housing "involves more than being knowledgeable about the neighborhood, and something different from sympathy for people," William Stringfellow, a Harlem lawyer in the 1970s, once wrote. "It is, rather, important to experience the vulnerability of daily life there."
In Durham, the Rev. Dr. Colin Miller plays a modern-day Stringfellow. He lives in the Maurin House, alongside people in the community who don't have another place to sleep. Modeled after Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker Movement, the house allows people to come and to go as they please. No one forces anyone to complete a program, pray before meals, find a house or get a job. Miller and his friends provide help with these life logistics if someone seeks it, but otherwise, they're just there to hang out, to be a friend, to facilitate a community.
Likewise, Hugh Hollowell founded Love Wins on the belief that relationships, not outcomes, are what people need. Hollowell doesn't wake up in the morning to give away food, find an apartment for someone or get a person a job. He goes to Love Wins to be with people.
In Raleigh's Moore Square and around Main Street in Durham, we ignore people who we assume don't have housing. Rocky and those like him go to Love Wins or the Maurin House to find eye contact, to hear a "good morning," to be a part of their cities. When I walked past Rocky during my first visit to Love Wins, I treated him like he wasn't a piece of the community.
But after taking another pull on his cigarette, Rocky told me what he'd told the Legislature two months earlier while testifying about a proposed voter identification bill. Too bad they didn't listen.