A Less Creative Man Would Title This Post “A Tale of Two Cities”

Apparently, I’m starting to become a Sunday-stroll type guy in 2021. I’ve spent the last two Sundays not hiking, not running, but going on nice leisurely walks. I’ve also been buying half gallons of butter pecan ice cream on the reg. Will pockets full of Werther’s Originals be next? I could only hope.

Two Sundays ago, I spent my time walking the grounds of The Biltmore. I bought an annual pass when the estate opened back up after the pandemic closures this spring, thinking that maybe I’d go there often to run or bike. I never bought a bike. I’ve run there once. The pass has come in handy for buying friends discounted guest passes, but I don’t think I’ll be renewing it this year. It’s nothing personal. I just don’t know that I use it enough to warrant the cost. My main complaint is that The Biltmore is always too crowded, but very early on a Sunday morning is a picturesque way to start the day.

This past Sunday, I walked along what I just learned was called the French Broad River East Branch Corridor in the River Arts District. I’ve spent a little bit of time in the River Arts District, but mostly, if I’m honest, at either one of the Wedge Brewing locations. I’ve never actually walked along the river.

It was a pleasant enough walk. It’s short. I didn’t track my progress in any meaningful way, but saying I covered three miles is generous. During the summer or fall, I feel like it would be the kind of pretty but immemorable walks that you take with friends more for catching up than catching views, where noticing what’s going on around you is secondary.

Since I was alone and thus observational, the first thing that caught my attention was just how perilously the houses across the river in West Asheville were perched on the top of the hill. The second, since the foliage isn’t there to obscure, is the tent cities that dot the riverbank just below these cliffside homes. I counted because I was curious. There were at least two dozen tents in the mile and a half I covered.

It was a jarring juxtaposition. One side of the river was filled with the kinds of people with enough disposable income to invest in overpriced athleisurewear power walking along a brand new greenway, the other side housing a portion of Asheville’s homeless population that intrepid, ambitious middle-class bloggers who grew up with people telling their voices and opinions are special can observe and write about to show a semblance of social responsibility. Look, mom! I’m not like the other privileged joggers ignoring the homeless! I’m bringing awareness.

Asheville’s homeless problem isn’t exactly dominating local (or national) headlines, but it’s pretty well documented if you take the time to look. Most news outlets I read reported similar stats; there’s roughly an average of 550 homeless people in Asheville. However, other sources point out that those most-shared stats come from a one-night count of homeless individuals and point out that during the 2017-2018 school year, Buncombe County Schools was able to identify over 600 homeless students.

What’s even more jarring, when I actually took the time to research these numbers, is to realize how ignorant it was for me to be jarred by the juxtaposition between my $98.00 Banana Republic sweatsuit and those encampments. Because the homeless population is very present in my day-to-day. They’re hanging out on the bottom of exit ramps, holding signs asking for money on dividers outside of Target, or asking for change on Pack Square as I step around on my way to get Asian fusion and $5.00 local IPAs. I remember walking along Church street to Catawba Brewing a couple weeks back and seeing some tents in a wooded patch right on the South Slope.

That’s all I have, to be honest. Those sources I linked to explain the root of Asheville’s homeless problem better than I could. I went on a long walk at the Biltmore again earlier this evening to clear my head and do some thinking. What I kept thinking about, though, were those tents across the river, and of course, about how thinking about them while taking artistic Instagram shots in the garden of America’s largest home provides the necessary contrast we writers crave.

Speaking of writers, I have a short story I’d like to recommend that’s stuck with me since reading it this past spring. It’s from Lauren Groff‘s short story collection Florida. I’m not just trying to appear altruistic when I say I’ve never been someone disgusted by homelessness or operated under the illusion that homelessness is easy to prevent. But I am guilty of not really thinking about it. Groff’s story “Above and Below” reminded me just how many people would have to not offer me any help for someone like me to become homeless. When I say “someone like me,” I absolutely mean someone with the socioeconomic status and background where trivializing homelessness could be easy. The story’s jarring in its perception and heartbreaking in its execution. You could read it here.

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