In regard to reader Tom O’Brien’s recent letter [“Asheville’s Homelessness Predicament,” Jan 12, Xpress], I heard echoes of many of my own personal observations from the past few years. All his thoughts are well-taken and should be reread, so I’d just like to add something about homelessness in Asheville that has been troubling me for some time.
As well-meaning as much of the city populace is when we take a look at the issue (I detest the millennial buzz phrase “We need to have a conversation about …”), I fear that at times an accompanying issue is being overlooked.
Consider: When you hear the term “homelessness,” are the first images that come to mind rattily groomed, chain-smoking alcoholics meandering around Pritchard Park or their unwashed sign-wielding brethren lodged at medians and stop signs with their shopping carts? As unfortunately phrased that the previous sentence may be, I can guarantee you that it’s a description a lot of us subscribe to, even when we support reach-out social agencies and feel good about ourselves.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve had the chance to observe and talk with many, many teenagers and young adults in their early 20s who don’t fit the above scruffy/dirty stereotype, yet are perennially just a few drug incidents or financial disasters away from homelessness. They have typically disintegrated their social and familial relationships — we all need support systems, no matter how tough or independent we view ourselves — as well as experienced years of abuse and trauma, lost multiple jobs, amassed criminal records and more.
So they feel their backs are permanently against the wall, and they give up. Misery has no beginning or ending date that can be offset simply by keeping a calendar in your smartphone and setting a Google alert.
I probably once casually referred to this demographic along lines of “just teenage dope fiends” and maybe even assuming most of them will grow out of their self-abuse “phase.” Well, I was a dumbass. If those impressions turn out to be accurate for some of the crust punks, trust-fund kids and those with eventual job prospects, what percentage of them am I willing to give up on as simply another data set? Maybe they’ll just continue to age and turn out to be the next generation of Pritchard Park regulars. And anyway, I can’t do much about future “inevitabilities,” right?
I’ve got my own life to live.
In 2021, I frequently drove along I-240 and past the highly visible downtown homeless encampment. It ain’t there no more, tourists, so you can breathe easy. But while the tents were still there, I began noticing more and more young people among the dwellers. I have no idea where they’ve moved on to now. But I plan to find out, because I do know that relocation doesn’t erase peril, and for some reason this notion haunts me deeply.
As the late poet Jim Morrison might have put the matter, “What are you going to do about it?”
— Fred Mills