Underneath Asheville: A close-up of life on Asheville’s streets
By Zach Walters, founder of Underneath Asheville, an ongoing photography project on Instagram that highlights Asheville’s city streets and the people that live and love there.
This is a contributor-submitted Voices piece. Want to join the conversation? We invite you to write for us. Learn how to share your voice here.
The AVLtoday team loves @underneath_asheville’s open, compassionate images and the stories people share with him. We asked Zach to create a photo essay for our Voices platform that we could run in our newsletter, and he picked 10 of his favorite entries to share.
Warning: Today’s conversation contains descriptions of drug use, violence, and mental illness.
“Brian the Gentleman”
My first encounter with Brian was about a year ago, and I quickly became aware of his obsession with rocks. He placed a couple stones in my hand and told me to keep them. Every time I see him, he is in good spirits and he likes to make people laugh. Waving a magic wand he found in a trash can, he insisted on holding the door open for this woman and saying hi to almost anyone who walked down the street.
Paul arrived on the streets of Asheville with nothing, fresh out of rehab, and returned to drinking. We quickly became friends. When this photo was taken in the summer of 2018, Paul told me he had gotten hurt while blacked out. He couldn’t remember how he hurt himself and it scared him. He was alone and terrified. After making an attempt on his life, he finally decided to get help. He has been clean for 6 months and is in a long-term treatment program in Morganton. Paul is one of the only success stories I have seen so far. If you saw him now, you wouldn’t even recognize him from this picture: He is happy, healthy, and pursuing his goals in music and juggling. He hopes to return to Asheville soon.
“Blood of the Lamb”
I was astounded when I first heard Raven sing. In this photo, she is performing a gospel song called “Blood of the Lamb” that she wrote when she was 16. She sings straight from her soul, and it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Raven has struggled with mental illness and she has had a very difficult life. She has an apartment, but she comes out into the streets when she needs money. She is always appreciative for anything anyone has to give. We always tell each other we love each other when we part ways.
Right before this picture was taken, Bobby told me that today had been one of the worst days of his life. “I got called the n-word and a monkey today.” People of color experience more hardship on the streets than their white counterparts. In multiple respects they are treated as second-class citizens, especially in a predominantly white town such as Asheville. Racial slurs are commonplace on the street and racial profiling is prevalent among police.
“Pimp the pen”
I didn’t catch his name, but I see him often. He has been homeless for about a year. He didn’t mind me taking his picture as he wrote down a new freestyle he was working on. He had some of the smallest, neatest handwriting I had ever seen. There was an air of shyness about his work. I felt like he didn’t want me to see what he was writing, so I didn’t pry.
Raven told me she was the incarnation of a pagan goddess. Surrounded by candy and roses at her makeshift altar, she had a striking presence. I didn’t understand what she was saying, but a young man next to me sat rapt in attention as she discussed different deities and rituals. Raven has some mental issues and sometimes she yells in the street, but she can also be quite lucid in conversation. She seems to have a small cult following.
“Judge and jury”
I have known Mike for 2 years, and when he’s not strung out, he’s always creating something. His art has grown by leaps and bounds since this photo was taken, and he takes it very seriously. Many members of the homeless community are engaged in different forms of art, but it can be difficult to keep track of supplies. Recently all of Mike’s art supplies got stolen, but he managed to get more. His latest sketches abound with skulls and demons, like nightmares spilling over the page.
“A quick retreat”
A month ago, Tree asked me to document his recovery. Recently, he told me it looks like he isn’t going to get clean, but he still wants to help others find recovery. In this photo, he prepares a shot of methamphetamine behind an alleyway. As a former intravenous drug user, I feel that drug use is an essential part of the story of Asheville’s homeless population. A large percentage of Asheville’s homeless population uses meth. While it causes mental and physical health problems, some users can function relatively normally on it. Others spiral down in an amphetamine psychosis. Instead of being treated by addiction or mental health professionals, the primary intervention the homeless community experiences is being arrested by law enforcement.
“Dining with Dog”
This was back in the golden days of “Dog.” Dog’s physical and mental health have been in decline lately, but on this day, he was the happiest that I remember. Someone had just given him this McDonald’s burger and he had Panda, his beloved dog, by his side. Panda was later taken by his family, because he had trouble taking care of her. On this day, he was happy to see me, happy to be alive even…When he was in better spirits, he loved to have his photo taken.
They were lovers, who had met each other on the road. I walked up on them cuddling and I was impressed by their open display of affection. Most people on the streets try to display a tough exterior. I asked them if I could take their picture and they were happy to let me. They were very friendly, and we spoke for a little while. I never saw them again.
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