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LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: Walking Tall Wilmington’s Randy Evans unpacks Hurricane Florence and needs of an under-served population

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Randy Evans’ unpacks what happened with Wilmington’s forgotten citizenry during Hurricane Florence.

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Hurricane Florence hit me with Glenn.  Like many people in town, I spent the week before trying to get my home, family and businesses ready to face the storm: culling supplies, boarding windows, filling up cans with extra gas, putting away items that could fly away. While we were securing the bookstore, Glenn approached, as he was shuffling down the street with his saxophone case, as if it was any other Wednesday morning.

SHELTER FROM THE STORM: Walking Tall Wilmington founder Randy Evans (not pictured) took in a group of people who had no where to go during Hurricane Florence as part of Walking Tall Wilmington’s mission to help an under-served population. Photo by Randy Evans

SHELTER FROM THE STORM: Walking Tall Wilmington founder Randy Evans (not pictured) took in a group of people who had no where to go during Hurricane Florence as part of Walking Tall Wilmington’s mission to help an under-served population. Photo by Randy Evans

Folks who have heard beautiful sounds of saxophone music on our downtown streets over the last few years will recognize Glenn. He’s an older gentleman who busks as his main form of income.
“Glenn!” I shouted. “Glenn! Glenn, where are you planning to spend the storm?”

“I don’t know—the parking deck maybe?”

I stared at him in horror. The shelters were filling up and it was a drive to get to them. With no phone to get information, no transportation and no family, how exactly do you convince someone on a morning as beautiful as September 12, 2018, that in 36 hours it would look like the gates of hell opened?

“Glenn, they are talking about 140-mile-an-hour winds; you cannot be out in that!” I stammered.

“Yeah, well, if the post office will come through, I can get a check and get an apartment,” he trailed off.

It wasn’t going to happen in two days.

“When did you say it was going to rain?”

“Tomorrow,” I said. “This is serious.”

Everything I worried about for the last three days stopped in front of me. All my problems were of privilege. I had options and resources. Here I was, worried about moving my car to the parking deck—the very parking deck Glenn was planning to sit in during a potential Cat 4 hurricane.

“OK, well, I don’t know…” Glenn trailed off and waved a hand at me.

I couldn’t force him to go somewhere he didn’t want to be (free will and all). I wanted so much, at that moment, to scoop him up and bring him home. But he had to go play some music and make some money because it was a working day.

I was almost in tears by the time we returned home. I called the main phone number for the Wilmington PD to ask if there was a plan to help get people, specifically homeless people, to shelters during the storm.

“I mean, they don’t have transportation, the buses won’t be running, and of anyone who needs shelter, it is this group…” I babbled into the phone, trying to sound like a sane and reasonable person.

The response I got was, “No, there was no plan to move the homeless to shelters.” More so, the police would not go out on calls after the hurricane officially made landfall.  In addition, like my scenario with Glenn, they could not force anyone to seek shelter who did not want it.

“Doesn’t the National Guard evacuate people who are trapped?” I hollered at the phone after we hung up. “So do you have to be trapped to get help instead of never having had the resources for a roof in the first place?”

After a glass of water, I admitted I wasn’t renting a bus and going around to pick up people and transport them to shelters—or bring them home with me. Perhaps my sanctimonious outrage needed to be checked. What was I really doing?

Randy Evans, on the other hand, answered the call to action. Evans founded Walking Tall Wilmington, which works “to build interpersonal relationships with individuals experiencing poverty through giving full access, so that they may experience community through safe, and sacred spaces of healing.” Evans had 35 adults in his own home—a small home at that—to ensure their safety during Hurricane Florence.

“We made it work,” Evans tells encore  six months later, enough time away from the intensity of it all to speak about it with a clear head. “You’re in survival mode. You do what you have to do. We had plenty of food, plenty of water, I got a bunch of ice, a generator.”

They also had four dogs and a 3-year-old. According to Evans, it seemed a bit crazy. However, from where I sit, it’s grounds for sainthood. But it is also the outgrowth of the work of Walking Tall.

“Walking Tall started in 2017 out of necessity,” Evans says. “Because we didn’t have a building, we became a mobile outreach.”

Evans and a few people would travel around town to assist people. Whether they were in tented camps or around the downtown area, he tried to hit up places all across New Hanover County. Walking Tall participates in five picnic meals a week with people in Wilmington. That alone says a lot about Evans. He doesn’t feed homeless people; he shares a meal with friends.

“It’s a lot easier to view poverty through the lens of charity than to share a life and say, ‘This is going to be hard,’” he says.

Florence wasn’t the first time Evans opened his home to others. Wilmington’s great snowstorm of January 2018 became his first call for emergency shelter.

“When the storm came, I was stressing,” he notes. “I didn’t want to open up my house necessarily because of its small size. But I knew the storm was going to be bad. So I sent my wife and child to Raleigh and just said, ‘I’m going to open the house up and get as many resources as possible and see who shows; I’ll stay behind.’ This was based off a series of times I mistrusted the city in regards to these individuals. It wasn’t that I was trying to be heroic—or trying to be a lone ranger. I just had been put in situations where I didn’t trust the system.”

During Florence his fragile trust crumbled when Evans attempted to help three people in their early 20s get into shelter at one of the schools. He dropped them off and waited 5 minutes.

“I figured they got in, and I left to go get more supplies,” he tells. “It was Thursday afternoon, the rain was picking up and I just wanted to get back to the house and hunker down. So I get a phone call shortly after; they were told they couldn’t get in because they didn’t have an ID.”

Evans wound up taking them back to his already packed house to make it work. During a Facebook Live update, he mentioned the shelter situation … and the public latched on to the story. Then it became the focus of news stories in StarNews, on WECT and within other media outlets. According to Evans, things got so worked up, he was issued an official response: “Shelterees complete a registration and are asked to show an ID upon arrival but no one is denied the right to shelter.”

Then the storm hit late on Thursday. It was 2:30 a.m. and the power went out in Evans’ household.

“I got up to make sure everybody was OK and as comfortable as possible,” he tells. “I made sure the day before everyone did laundry as much as possible. I had sign-up sheets taped on the wall to make sure everybody got hot showers because the showers were going to be cold after this. When the power went out, I made sure we kept everything shut, the refrigerator, freezer, etc.”

But Friday afternoon brought with it trying times. “People started running out of cigarettes,” Evans says. “It was hot as hell—muggy. Cabin fever set in. Some people forgot their medications.”

Sheltering 35 people, and a majority with a mental illness, is no easy feat. “The combination of the heat, no cigarettes, mental illness, personalities made it very …” Evans trails off. “God, I don’t even know what word to use; it was tense—very tense. I had to go into a posture of survival and have an authoritarian attitude.”

Evans perhaps sums up the storm best: “As the days passed, they grew longer.” Saturday hit with the back end of Hurricane Florence moving through—day three.

“It was so nasty,” he tells. “We had quite a few tornado watches and tornadoes touched down near us. I had a plan for the 3-year-old to go in the bathroom while the rest of us tried to get in a sturdy place.”

Evans admits now to being very nervous and worried. Yet, he began the checklist of what was working for them.

“At least it’s a brick house,” he says. “We’ve got that going for us. But, really, the entire time was about putting out fires; it’s all I felt like I was doing. There was a hurricane on the outside and there was a hurricane on the inside.”

Evans separated physical altercations between people and a lot of trips to the emergency room. There were people having seizures from stress and detox.

“Mental break downs,” Evans notes. “Like this was reality; it was one of the most real things I’ve ever seen in my entire life—a slow-burning breakdown people were having. Some tried to leave, and they got downtown and ended up getting citations for breaking curfew.”

Evans’ voice shakes with emotion.

“Like I’m now starting to process this—what the hell happened,” he says. “I was changed afterward; I’m not the same person I was before that storm.”

While the rest of the city was trying to dig out from Hurricane Florence, Evans recounts trying to find tents, tarps, sleeping bags, and bungee cords for people who had no insurance. Because insurance companies do not underwrite tent camps in the woods.

“So, while the majority of the city was ‘coming together, becoming one, Wilmington strong,’ doing their thing, we had this whole other group essentially buried. That was a hard pill to swallow.”

Clearly, this isn’t going to be Wilmington’s last hurricane or catastrophic weather event. So the question is: What do we need to do now to start preparing to help all people in our community? Evans points first to local churches, noting Harbor United Methodist housed the Red Cross when they were here.

“Actually, having their churches open [would help],” he iterates. “There are some churches in this town the size of Independence Mall.”

Think how many lives could be saved with that kind of shelter.

“I mean no frills; I’m talking about human lives,” Evans details. “I’m pointing to local churches first because there’s a higher calling there. Talk to your congregations. Prepare a plan to open up your gymnasiums, open up your buildings. It will take time to create that.  It’s not going to be perfect, but it’s something.”

Evans also cites a desire to have more transparency with shelters. “What do you have in place?” he asks. “What are your pre-entry stipulations? We need to know all of these things so we can put it out there and people are aware. Strip away the red tape. Brass tacks here: What exactly does it take for someone to enter your facility?”

Evans’ work, Walking Tall’s work, isn’t just during a crisis. It is all day, every day.  “Hunger doesn’t stop because we don’t feel like showing up,” he reminds. “Mental illness, loneliness, isolation—the emotions don’t stop.”

Evans shakes his head.

“A building would be nice [for Walking Tall,]” he says aloud. “It would solve a lot of our problems.”

In addition to an emergency shelter, Evans’ envisions a permanent Walking Tall space offering a range of services, including job placement, therapy, hair cuts, and a doctor. “A well-rounded holistic way to engage in life,” he tells. “That’s what we need—a building so I don’t have to use my house any more. So we can say listen, ‘It’s 27 degrees outside, let’s go; it’s going to be cold.’”

For Walking Tall it is a goal and much more. Evans wants to be able to show people what a happy, healthy life looks like. He wants to show people it’s attainable. More, so he wants to show others that reaching out to help is an important first step.

“We don’t need a bunch of red tape and we don’t need stacks of paper to offer the basic necessities of life: food, shelter and basic health care,” he says.

Is it easy? No, but Evans makes it clear:  “When that happens, it’s going to mess up your life. But it’s a beautiful mess.”

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