Asheville is a special town. Here, one can find traces of every facet of American subculture expressed via the creative arts, crafts and cuisines that make up the Asheville mosaic, along with a respectable mix of international cultures. Condensing and magnifying these features are the special energies that fill this valley, according to Native Americans. In addition, Asheville is one of the more spiritual towns in the American South.
Asheville is a special place where liberalism, progressive thinking and sustainable culture flourish; in general, people here try to live conscious lives. For some of these same reasons, however, Asheville is also a popular destination for the homeless, or “travelers,” attracted by city residents’ reputation for compassion.
Given the large numbers of homeless folks who come to our town (relative to its size), one might not be too surprised to find that some of them died on the streets of this city last year. But it may come as a shock to learn that the death toll stands at 19. Asheville seems too small to accommodate so many unseen, unheard deaths on our streets — and too rich to allow so many unnecessary tragedies to play out amid such affluence.
The most alarming thing about these deaths, however, is how little has been said about the individuals in question. Our little town would not be the special place it is if the community didn’t honor these people’s memory. The Dec. 21 Pritchard Park vigil organized by the Church of the Advocate and the Asheville-Buncombe Homeless Initiative was a good start.
But it needs to be followed up by something with a broader reach, to give the residents of Asheville and surrounding areas a deeper understanding of the plight of the homeless in our community.
These names (see sidebar, “A Shameful Litany”) represent something intrinsically wrong with our society. Some of us have probably passed these men and women on the street, perhaps many times. They represent the inhumane leavings our culture allots to those who don’t conform to its standards and lifestyle. And, contrary to popular belief, these individuals aren’t just the dregs of society, but those who’ve been ill-used and unsupported. The Homeless Initiative's blog clearly states a message we would all do well to consider:
"On any given night, over 500 individuals are without a home in our community. Those who experience homelessness are at a much greater risk of injury and death than their housed counterparts. According to the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, those without housing are three to four times more likely to die prematurely than those with housing. The average age of death for those experiencing homelessness is around 50 years, in contrast to the average of 78 years for the rest of the population. Deaths among those without housing are often the consequence of inadequate access to health care, exposure to harsh weather or hate crimes."
So even as we enjoy a brief respite from this winter’s harsh weather, let us think of those in our community who don’t share in the blessings of shelter, warmth and the many other things we too often take for granted.
Hopefully, this will make us more grateful for what we have — and more willing to help those in dire need around us.
— Asheville resident Josiah Ramsay Johnston is a writer, anthropologist and teacher who has lived, studied and written on five continents.