THOMPSON’S STATION, Tenn. — Susan Dobbs’ heart raced and her eyes welled with tears when she pulled up to a wooden shed early one morning and saw cars parked in the driveway.
She took that sight as an emergency until she spotted Ronnie Johnson and hugged him in relief that the homeless man hadn’t died during the night.
“I just know he’s a loving person and he’s got a great heart,” she said of Johnson, a 59-year-old who lives in the shed behind the BP gas station in what is considered “downtown” here.
Dobbs is among a small group of people who have been checking in on Johnson regularly since he was diagnosed in September with a malignant 10-pound colorectal tumor and cancer that has spread to his liver and lungs.
“No matter what, everybody needs love,” said Dobbs, who works at a nearby Kroger. “If you can reach your hand out to him, why not do it?”
Born in Franklin, Johnson was raised in Thompson’s Station. He never has been able to read or write. That limited him to odd jobs he could find in the community. He rented a trailer until a few years ago, and when he could no longer afford to pay rent, he moved into a wooden storage shed.
Deborah Irwin set up a bank account, hoping for community support. She, family members and members of Thompson’s Station Methodist Church have spent thousands of dollars out of their pockets in the past four months since he started complaining of pain. He goes in for a third round of chemotherapy at Williamson Medical Center later this month.
“Right now, we’re looking at about $10,000 in hospital bills,” said Irwin, a lifelong Thompson’s Station resident who has known Johnson since she was a child when her grandmother sewed with his mother.
“My main concern is how are we going to take care of him when he really gets down,” she said.
Irwin asked Johnson if he would consider going into hospice, where he might be more comfortable and have better care.
“He broke down and started crying,” she said. “He said, ‘I know when I go there nobody will come and see me.’ He said, ‘My family is in Thompson’s Station.’”
Johnson actually doesn’t have any local blood relatives any more. Irwin said she’s discovered that his siblings are dealing with hardships of their own, including one who also has cancer.
She continues to seek assistance for Johnson. He isn’t eligible for TennCare. She is trying to get him approved for disability coverage.
A neighboring businessman allowed Johnson to run an extension cord to the shed, which is just big enough for a full-sized bed, a kerosene heater, a chair, a small refrigerator, and a television and VCR he uses to watch reruns of “Monk.”
“It’s like a one-room apartment,” he said. “There’s too much junk in here, though.”
But it doesn’t have a bathroom. Johnson has access to a business restroom and said he’s content to use a sink for “pan baths.”
“That’s the way a lot of people did growing up out here,” he said. “I’m more or less a country person, and I like being out here in the country.”
Johnson said he has all he needs and he most values his “friends, when people I love come around. When you ain’t got no money you’ve got to take what you can get. And thank God, I’ve got a roof over my head and a place I can stay warm.”
Irwin said a few residents are working on a winter-worthy place for Johnson that includes a bathroom.
While Johnson may be the only homeless man in town, he isn’t the only homeless man in Williamson County, said Steve Murray, executive director of Community Housing Partnership of Williamson County.
The agency served 63 families in the past fiscal year, compared with 44 the previous year.
Murray said there may be many others, like Johnson, who don’t seek help for different personal reasons.
“For some, there’s a stigma. To him, he’s not homeless,” he said. “For this man, the shed is home and they are giving him an opportunity to die in comfort and dignity.”