A Charlottesville Couple Revisited
Steps after homelessness.
Ryan Jones

The last time I saw Chris and Rabbit was a few weeks ago. We had pizza with pineapple and mushrooms on top and drank fizzy, yellow soda. Their dog and cat, Oden and Loki, play-wrestled on the side, while the rest of us were shooting the breeze, laughing and polishing off the pizza.

Chris and Rabbit hadn’t changed since the first day I visited them. Rabbit exhibited her same personal brand of charm delivered in her wry smiles and smart comments. Chris was still the quieter of the pair, maintaining the reserved spirit that I observed when I first met him.

A few days earlier I had gotten a text from Rabbit. The message was an “official invitation to a celebratory pizza feast.” The occasion? Their new location. I’d seen Rabbit and Chris several times before that, along with the photographer, Ryan. They’d read my tarot cards and showed me some new beads Rabbit had gotten to make earrings and bracelets from.

A lot about the last time I saw Chris and Rabbit was the same as the first time I met them in July. But a lot was different.

For one, they were done with their days of sleeping outside in a tent by the Rivanna. This time, when I saw them, we were inside at their new place, a rented room in a small motel up U.S. Route 29. There were two double beds covered in maroon comforters and a small television with muted adult cartoons on the screen.

Before this place, setting and keeping up campsites had been Chris and Rabbit’s mode of habitation. It was unpredictable — the threat of a park ranger or police officer happening upon their outdoor domicile was a constant one — and ensured that the place they could lay their heads was always impermanent. Now, in the motel, while still a temporary solution, at least Chris and Rabbit were laying their heads more comfortably.

Finding a place to live in Charlottesville is still a difficult process. Pursuing Section 8 — or government-subsidized — housing, staying in homeless shelters and renting a cheap apartment have not been tenable answers to Chris and Rabbit’s homelessness. The options of all of the above are slim in Charlottesville, and the couple refuses to give up their pets, eliminating many of those options.

Instead, staying in a budget motel for as long as they can muster is their current plan. While not a solution, it marks a definitive change in their story. Propelled by cash from Rabbit’s jewelry-making business and Chris’ under-the-table construction work, the couple is, though not yet permanently off the streets, decidedly one big step past them.

I’ve been getting to know Chris and Rabbit a lot better. They’re not indelibly marked by their former categorization as “homeless.” They have remarkable backgrounds, individual interests and hobbies, their own families.

What they showed me were peeks into their lives, separate and together, with their respective twists and turns, triumphs and losses.

At one point, Rabbit pulled out her writing, sheets of paper, some of them yellowed and old, with careful pencil handwriting filling each line. The topics ranged from the treatment of American veterans to tips for successful camping. I asked Rabbit to read her words out loud.

One of her articles was entitled, “Perception: A Panhandler’s Tale,” about Rabbit’s dual experiences of asking for and giving money. Her narrative spanned from judging people begging on the street, to becoming one of those people herself, then to finding her way back out of panhandling.

A James Baldwin quote I think about often goes, “One writes out of one thing only — one’s experience.” From Rabbit’s own writing, I could better sense all that she’s seen and passed by and dealt with in her life.

Of panhandlers, she wrote: “I may not know their story, but I remember mine, and that is enough for me.” I think Rabbit’s stuff should be required reading for University students.

After showing me her writings, Rabbit went outside for a portrait by Ryan. Chris came back in through the door, returning from his.

He sat down and asked me what I want to do with my life. The only answer I could truthfully provide was something along the lines of making a living and doing at least enough to make my family proud, but it was by no means a developed or even confident answer. I directed the question back to him.

He said he wants to see his young children, from whom he’s been estranged for years, again, and that he wants to do a good job on the new construction gig, replacing an outbuilding’s roof, he’s nabbed up in Crozet.

Then, after some silence, he said, “I want to do more than exist.”

Sitting there in an unfamiliar room, in a city I moved to a few years ago to get a degree whose use I don’t yet fully know, I realized that Chris’ words drew an idea bigger than both of us. Covering him and his partner for a story made them an inextricable part of mine. Of course, neither my nor their story is done. But from what I could tell, their future signals something auspicious.