WILMINGTON — Last Thanksgiving was a bad day in a bad month for Scott Allen.
“All hell broke loose. My brain just exploded with blood,” Allen said Thursday, seated at a pavilion table staring out over the Cape Fear River, his voice deep and gruff. “They had to insert a tube, and it took ’em three days to drain all the blood out.”
A month earlier, Allen said, he was assaulted by his wife and stepson in their home in Castle Hayne. After falling unconscious they beat him with a chair while his 12-year old son watched.
“Last time I saw him he was standing in the corner screaming ‘Mommy stop, mommy stop!'” Allen said. “He was terrified, man.”
The next forty days Allen drifted between the emergency room, the hospital’s behavioral unit, and the county jail.
“His wife instigates this fight and leaves him with a traumatic brain injury, and he’s the one who gets charged criminally and has a domestic violence protective order out against him now,” according to local attorney Aaron Lindquist, who offers pro-bono legal services to Allen.
Meanwhile, Allen’s headaches intensified, his eyesight blurred, and he was growing sensitive to light and noise.
On Thanksgiving Day, he began to mumble incoherently to a doctor at New Hanover Regional Medical Center. After a second CAT scan, the doctor discovered he had subdural hematoma — his brain was bleeding from traumatic impact.
Allen spent three days in the neurological emergency unit and four days in recovery, and in the cold of December he was released.
“I came back out into the streets, and that’s where I’ve been since,” Allen said. “I had nowhere to go, so I partnered up with a guy — you gotta have somebody out here you can trust — and we stayed in front of the library for a while, then stayed down under the 4th Street bridge until it got real, real cold.”
In January, Randy Evans from a Wilmington nonprofit called Walking Tall Wilmington opened his home to nearly thirty people who were denied entry into local shelters, including Allen.
“It’s hard to explain, you know, when someone just says, ‘Come on in,’” Allen said. “It feels so good, instead of him saying, like most people say, ‘Can you move out of the way?’”
Evans had founded Walking Tall as a mobile provision of resources for those who are “unsheltered or experienced in poverty.”
“The word ‘homeless’ victimizes the individual,” Evans said. “It’s a way for us privileged people to put things into a box so we feel better about ourselves.”
Evans and his wife Marya began to realize, however, that solutions to poverty lay deeper than handing out food and clothes to those in need.
“We started understanding that these resources aren’t going to end poverty, it’s going to be community,” Evans said. “It’s going to be creating space, personal space, for them to feel that they’re receiving self-respect and self-worth and dignity.”
After eight days Evans gave Allen a tent and he set up shelter in a thicket of woods outside the city.
In April, Attorney Lindquist was introduced to Allen through his pro-bono work for Walking Tall and began drawing up a legal plan to get him back on his feet. First on the docket, get his driver’s license back; second, file actions for divorce and partial custody of his son.
“For a lot of people who are indigent there’s not a whole lot of help,” Lundquist said. “Legal aid is there, but they do a limited amount of work because their budget gets slashed almost every year through the state legislature.”
Through all the challenges Lindquist saw his client facing, including thoughts of suicide, he began to see a transformation take place — especially when Wilmington chef Keith Rhodes gave him a job at Catch, his high-end seafood restaurant.
Top Chef with higher intentions
Keith Rhodes has an iconic presence to him. It’s not just the celebrity status he gained through becoming the first North Carolinian to appear on the hit food show “Top Chef”, or becoming the first black chef in both Carolinas to be nominated for the prestigious James Beard award. He’s the sort of person who commands the vibes of a room: people seem to pay attention to what he does and says because it just feels important.
Three months ago, when one of Catch’s dishwashers walked out on the job, Rhodes called Randy Evans — he had been sending a few truckloads of food to Walking Tall’s downtown pavilion gatherings every month — and decided to hire Allen.
“I’ve been really fortunate to have raised my family in Wilmington being a successful black chef in a white retirement community,” Rhodes said. “Being a great chef is cool, you know what I mean? But at the end of the day, leaving a better carbon footprint in my community is what it’s all about.”
After a rocky start, Allen proved to be a dedicated and timely worker who despite his circumstances brought an upbeat mood to the restaurant. When Rhodes discovered he was sleeping in a tent “underneath a bridge or in the woods or somewhere, in all this rain and heat we had this summer,” he gave an ultimatum: find a room to rent and get a raise.
“I said, ‘I can’t pay you great money to opt to stay out on the street. I want to see you make that next step forward. That’s how it’s gonna be: you do a good job for me, I’m gonna hold you to some expectations. One of them is, I expect you to get a roof over your head,'” Rhodes said.
Allen found a room soon after, his rent beginning last week, September 1.
How far he has come from the cold winter in the woods has not escaped him, nor the friends he has found along the way.
“I was pretty much losing faith back then, ready just to give up. I was looking at the bridge man, like I could just take a dive off of it and forget about it all,” Allen said.
“I can tell you many people who didn’t work out,” Rhodes said. “People coming out of prison, then two weeks later they done held up somebody else, ya know what I mean? And going back to prison. But that one positive [story] always outshines the negative ones.”
For Attorney Lindquist, he looks forward to his client’s future.
“On the other side of this season of life it’ll be great to have a beer and look back and say, ‘Remember when things looked really bad?” Lindquist said. “You know what, here we are now.'”
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at email@example.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.