Today, Asheville is one of a handful of boroughs from St. Paul, Minn., to Manhattan that top the destination lists of ex-addicts wary of returning to the siren calls of their former haunts. These cities tend to be gritty, but artsy, places where the harsher realities of city life are on display alongside art openings and late-night cafes. Here in Asheville, there's also a strong religious backbone, a growing number of available service jobs, and a broad community of recovery support groups and counselors. What's more, the cost of living is relatively low, with lots of free things to do - from fairs to hikes in the Pisgah Forest.
"For people recovering from the trauma that accompanies these syndromes, Asheville has become a place where they can get their life back," says Sam Sutker, a logistics coordinator at the Asheville-based Voices for Recovery organization. "There's an underlay of support that goes from the personal to the metaphysical: It's a hip city, yet we have the oldest mountains in the world and the third-oldest river. The fact is, people have been coming here for healing for a long time."
They come on a hunch or a recommendation. Ryan Dieterich has been here two weeks, and he already feels like a new man. He's staying in a modest dorm room at the Western Carolina Rescue Mission, one of several groups that are flourishing here, catering to ex-addicts.
For him, as for many, Asheville has become a crucial reprieve, a halfway house between addiction and lives back home. One lanky man in a starched work-shirt says he came to sober up. "I needed to get 400 miles away from home," he says.
Beyond a sense of purpose, outsiders have brought new economic promise for a city that was reeling from job losses in the late '80s and early '90s. Many ex-addicts work as janitors or clerks in the booming tourist industry. Most attend church regularly and go to a variety of support groups - Asheville has dozens. And though some leave, many stay. Sorrells works with several other recovered addicts at a shop where the owners know of their pasts.