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The Families of Carney Place: Chapter Two

The Homeless Build a Home
By Phil Kloer


The Rev. Brian Combs helps build a retaining wall for a Habitat home that will be owned by the Robles family in Asheville, N.C. Photo by Phil Kloer/Habitat for Humanity.


John Perry cuts pieces of gable sheathing for a home that will be owned by Lynn Burklow. Perry is homeless. “This right here is a good way to get closer to God and His people,” he says. Photo by Phil Kloer/Habitat for Humanity.


Warren “Popeye” Hill cuts shingles for the roof on the Burklow home in Carney Place. Hill recently moved into public housing after being homeless for years. Photo by Phil Kloer/Habitat for Humanity.


On a sunny summer day at Carney Place, John Perry ran the circular saw, cutting gables for the new home that will soon belong to Lynn Burklow, a teaching assistant and after-school teacher in Asheville, North Carolina.

When the day’s work ended, Perry went home to his tent. Homeless off and on for 12 years, he is one of a regular corps of homeless men and women who help build Habitat homes in Asheville.

“This right here is a good way to get closer to God and His people,” he said during a break in the gable-cutting. “These are His people right here. These are His workers. We’re doing something for humanity, helping people to have homes.

“I wouldn’t mind living in one of these houses,” he added.

But it doesn’t seem strange, he said, to spend the day building homes for others when he has no home. It’s just the way it is.

The Rev. Brian Combs, pastor of Haywood Street Congregation, who helps bring the homeless to build houses, calls this a “holy irony.”

“It really invigorates my faith,” he said. “These guys sweat and get blisters and inevitably they say, ‘I’m going to go back tonight and sleep under a tree or in a tent. But I got to build something so someone else will have a house.’

“The assumption is that homeless folks don’t want to work, don’t want to give back, they’re lazy,” Combs added. “It’s just not true.”

The homeless are among the many volunteers laboring to turn Carney Place from a weedy field into a community of 22 families. Six houses have started since earlier this year, and the neighborhood, an ambitious plan by Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity, is scheduled for completion in late 2012.

Haywood Street Congregation is a United Methodist Church with a creed of openness and a mission to engage the less fortunate. “We’re the church that wants to welcome everybody that’s been excluded by church,” Combs said.

In his work with Asheville’s homeless, Combs heard from men and women on the street that only receiving charity and handouts did nothing for their sense of worth.

“Folks would say, ‘I want to feel good about myself, too, just like other folks who do service work and volunteer,’ ” Combs said.

Many wanted an opportunity to give back.

Combs had volunteered for Habitat, and thought the motto “A hand up instead of a handout” fit that need perfectly. And so, two years ago, he started driving the church van to an Asheville homeless day center in the morning and asking for volunteers to build houses for Habitat. Sometimes he would get one or two, sometimes as many as 15, depending on how the day labor market was hiring that day.

“So many folks on the street are skilled laborers; they’ve done a lot of temporary construction work,” Combs said. “These folks know how to frame, they know how to stucco, they know how to drywall and paint. They’ve got all the skills you would want for Habitat.”

While Perry cut gables, Warren Hill, known as Popeye to his friends, was up on the roof cutting shingles. A Vietnam-era veteran, he said he had been homeless for 28 years, but recently moved into public housing.

“I’ve been changing my ways, trying to do some good for the world,” he said. As he cut the shingles, he passed them to Charles Burns, a (non-homeless) Haywood volunteer who had come in the van to help. A former roofer and Habitat volunteer for almost 30 years, Burns nailed the shingles into place methodically while a radio on the roof played classic rock.

A few lots away from Lynn Burklow’s house, at the end of the Trellis Court cul-de-sac, Combs helped build a retaining wall for Maria and Samuel Robles, who are scheduled to move into the house with their two teenagers later this year. Combs raked gravel into a ditch ferociously, as if a judge was about to show up at any moment and grade him on his work.

“We’re trying to start at the basic building block of Christianity, that all people are created in the divine image of God,” the pastor said. “Part of being created in that image is that God has gifted us with abilities of what we can do to make the world a better place. That includes the homeless.”

Read the entire story of The Families of Carney Place is following the families of Carney Place, the volunteers who build the houses and the Asheville, N.C., Habitat affiliate as the neighborhood moves from an abandoned field to a community of families living in their new homes. Check back for future installments.