Don’t tell Jerry Nelson he’s not prepared for his cross-country bicycle ride. He’s got a bike he hasn’t ridden much, he doesn’t have a support team, and he’s still looking for a few sponsors. But his open-heart surgery is 12 months past, and nothing gets him fired up more than helping the homeless. Just don’t ask him to give up his cigarettes on the 2,000 mile-plus journey from Asheville to California.
“Emotionally, I’m ready for this one,” Nelson says. “Physically, not so much.”
When Nelson, 54, takes off on March 19, the professional photographer, veteran and advocate for the homeless will leave with a goal of raising $10,000 for the Asheville Homeless Network. The grassroots group claims it’s the nation’s only organization made up of homeless people aimed at helping homeless people. Money from the trip will go to the group’s Adopt-A-Homeless program, which matches and individual or an organization with a homeless person to help them make the transition from the street to a home.
The Vietnam veteran, who served as a cryptologic technician in the Navy from 1972 to ‘84, says he also hopes to raise money for national organizations that work with homeless vets. Nelson credits the Veterans Administration with providing him with resources to keep him from being homeless, but he worries about others who may not seek out that help.
“This story’s not about this big ol’ boy,” Nelson says. “It’s about the veterans coming back that don’t have a place to live. I’ve got a soft spot for them.”
Nelson also bristles at what he describes as discrimination against the homeless. “It seems like the homeless is the last group that’s safe to discriminate against.” The bike trip will help raise awareness and sensitivity to their plight, he says.
This isn’t the first time Nelson has set off on a road trip to raise money for the homeless. He completed a similar trip in 2008 to raise cash for the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans. He says he averaged 65 miles a day, riding 215 miles on his best day and 8 miles on his worst.
Nelson says he figures this trip will take him about six weeks. The Asheville ReCyclery helped him build a bike for his upcoming trek. Another group that works with homeless vets bought him a lightweight tent and sleeping bag, though he says he still needs saddle bags, gloves, an air pump and a few other supplies.
“Anyone can become homeless at any point in time,” Nelson says, “so I want to pump up some dollars and pump up the volume” on solutions.