Good news for Columbia’s homeless: Catholic Charities of the Midlands will open a free shower and laundry facility downtown Monday, March 7, right across the street from the city’s bus transit center. As you can imagine, sometimes a hot shower and clean clothes can make all the difference when you’re on the streets.
It’s filling a need. There are no coin laundries in downtown Columbia, and few opportunities to take a free shower, so a lot of people end up taking “bird baths” in a bathroom sink at places like the Richland County Public Library.
Chuck Waters, a homeless man who’s part of the Homeless Helping Homeless advocacy group, told me that once the Winter Shelter closes April 1, “you’re not going to have a place to shower unless you use a hose or go to the river.”
The facility, called Clean of Heart, will only be able to serve about 30 people a week to start, and you’ll have to sign up in advance at Catholic Charities, but, in the words of one of the organizers, “It’s 30 more than right now have access.”
Read the rest in an article I wrote for the Carolina Reporter.
The local Fox affiliate had me on the air recently for a talk show about homelessness in the Midlands. You can watch it here (I show up around the 18-minute mark).
So what else is new?
- Remember when I asked Columbia’s churches and charities if they’d be willing to open a free laundry service? Well, I got a call from Mary Gohean at Catholic Charities of the Midlands, and she said they’ve been working on putting a laundry and shower facility for the homeless in a building across from the central bus stop on Laurel Street. Great location, great idea. It opens March 7, and they still need a few fifth-Friday-of-the-month volunteers.
- Construction is still underway for the Transitions Center, a new-school homeless shelter at the old Salvation Army site that will include year-round beds and recovery programs. They’ve set the completion date for April, but then there’s the matter —sound familiar? — of funding and staffing it.
- Every couple of years, states have to conduct a homeless count to determine how much federal money they get for certain programs. That was this year, and I tagged along as a volunteer to see how exactly it works. In South Carolina, it works like a census, which makes sense when you’re downtown and can divide the land along a grid. My team, however, was assigned to rural Lexington County — all of it. While there are probably more homeless people downtown, it seems like we’re missing a lot of people out in the woods this way. More thoughts on that later.
- I’ve done a so-so job of keeping up with my homeless friends who watched out for me on the streets. Ernest and Dawn spent their summer up north, working for a traveling carnival. They’re back now, but they’ve had some problems, including a couple of hospital visits for Dawn’s seizures. All they can get is ER treatment; what they really need is to see a specialist. Big John and I still see each other fairly regularly through a Monday-night homeless ministry; he’s still roughing it outside and keeping his wits (and his wit) about him. As for Tommy, it’s been a long time since we’ve seen each other. I’ve heard he had some hard times this past year, but I’ll wait until I’ve finally found him before I go into any detail.
- Some homeless people have started an advocacy and service group called Homeless Helping Homeless. They started out meeting at the future site of the Nickelodeon Theatre on Main Street, but I’ve been told they’re now meeting at Sidney Park CME Church on Blanding Street on Mondays at 6 p.m. They do things like pick up trash downtown and attend meetings of homeless service providers. I’ve met a couple of the members, and they’re a refreshingly honest bunch.
That’s all for now. I’ve been doing a lot more reporting than this, but it’s for a long-term freelance magazine piece about the changing definition of homelessness. I’ll let you know when someone publishes it.
Among my glaring character flaws: I’m terrible at keeping up with friends.
Matt and I made some close friends during our three days on the streets, and I want to do a better job than usual of not losing track of them. This post is about that.
Ernest, Dawn, Tommy, and John were our indispensable Sherpa guides. They showed us where to sleep, taught us how to walk and talk and argue, and introduced us to kind souls while steering us clear of the crooks and mouthwash drinkers.
I’m hard-pressed to think of a time when I’ve been more dependent on someone for safety. Maybe that’s why homeless people are often so choosy with their friends: Befriend the wrong person and you’re endangering yourself. Friendships among homeless people seem to be less based on common interests and more based on the idea that a person will protect and stick up for you, maybe even lay down his life for you.
I sat down with Tommy for dinner Monday night, and he got all emotional with me, talking about the serendipity of our paths having crossed and the firmness of his conviction that we would always be linked. It was the sort of conversation that men rarely share, and when we shook hands goodbye, I knew it was something sacred.
The next evening, I got a call from Ernest, who had me on speakerphone so I could hear Dawn as she thrashed him in a game of rummy.
Back on March 31, the day before the Winter Shelter closed, I gave the two of them a ride to the Greyhound station and sent them on their way with a bag full of sandwiches and apples and a calling card — all the things I thought my mom would have handed me. Ernest had secured jobs for both of them, along with a friend, in a traveling carnival based out of Indiana. As we pulled into the parking lot, someone was singing Leonard Cohen on the radio:
“Love is not a victory march;
It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.”
It was a tough departure for Dawn, and while some of this had to do with the fact that she’d never left the state before, it was mainly because she was leaving her children behind.
Dawn’s got three kids, and she knows that no court will award her custody while she’s homeless. The plan is to save up her money until the carnival ends in October and then come back to collect her children. She said she hopes they’ll understand one day why she has to do this.
As for Tommy and John, they cleared out of their downtown sleeping spots once the Winter Shelter closed, hoping to avoid confrontations by setting up camp in the woods. So far so good, but tensions are high. John’s been talking about some bad blood among their group of friends, and Tommy, a recovering alcoholic, has decided he can’t be around his longtime friends who drink liquor every night.
Still, Tommy was in higher spirits Monday night than I’d ever seen him. He’d spent some considerable time sitting by the river alone, playing his guitar and watching the water pass, and he spoke euphorically about Heaven and the promise that all things will be made new. I could tell he’d been praying a lot, and he said he’d been praying for me.
Tommy talked plans: He wants to start a homeless Bible study, and he said he’s got around 25 people interested in it on either Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday nights. He asked me to see if any college ministries wanted to help out.
He told me that, once he finally gets things straight with Veterans Affairs and receives his five years’ worth of checks in arrears, he’ll put most of the money in the bank, buy some good boots and a tent, and hike the Appalachian Trail, living off the land and the kindness of strangers. Upon returning, he’ll find a place of his own and continue the job hunt.
I asked if I could tag along once again, and he said that would be fine.
Columbia’s Winter Shelter closed for the spring Thursday morning, sending hundreds of the city’s homeless back outside at nights.
“250 people are headed nowhere,” said Billy, a 56-year-old homeless man who’d been staying at the Winter Shelter. The shelter’s exact capacity is 240, but the fact remains: Living arrangements are up in the air.
Billy, who withheld his last name, listed the same potential sleeping spots as many others facing the same predicament: parking garages, abandoned houses, the woods. If there is an unoccupied nook or cranny downtown, odds are the homeless scoped it out Thursday night.
Cooperative Ministries Executive Director David Kunz, whose organization helps fund the Winter Shelter, said there will not be enough beds in other area shelters to absorb the 240 homeless who left Thursday morning.
“The good majority of them will be sleeping outside,” Kunz said.
This happens every year. The shelter won’t reopen until October, so downtown residents and business owners will have an increased number of outdoor neighbors throughout the warmer months.
Steve Rowland, owner of Drake’s Duck-In on Main Street, said his problems are about to multiply: panhandling during lunch hours, drunken confrontations with customers, defecation and urination in front of his store at night. He’s owned the restaurant for 40 years, and he says he knows people who have been homeless that entire time and made no attempts at getting jobs.
“I didn’t inherit the responsibility for these irresponsible people,” Rowland said. Every morning, he has police escort his manager into the store in case someone is sleeping on the front porch again.
Dorothy Thompson, who runs T.O. Thompson Jewelry Repair with her husband Harold, said she’s more concerned about prisoners being let off at a nearby bus stop than about the homeless, whom she sees as mostly harmless and in need. Still, she said she had to put up a chain-link fence last summer to keep people from sleeping on the stairs behind the store.
Is it safe to go downtown at night? Columbia Police Chief Tandy Carter said that only 2 or 3 percent of Columbia’s homeless are criminals, and that they tend to commit more property crimes — specifically auto break-ins — than violent crimes.
“Homelessness is a public health concern, not a police concern,” Carter said. “The enforcement end, to us, is not as important as trying to line them up with the right services.”
What if the Winter Shelter were kept open year-round? Certainly, some people would get complacent and learn to call it home.
But for the ones who are still trying, a shelter is a chance to save money. Here’s a common scenario: A man stays in the Oliver Gospel Mission’s transient dorm for 30 days, at which point shelter policy dictates he has to leave for 14 days so his bed can be offered to someone else. For those first 30 days, he has no housing costs and can save his money toward more permanent living arrangements.
For the 14 days outside the mission, though, he can either live on the streets for free — and run the risk of being robbed in his sleep or arrested for urban camping — or he can check into a hotel room. He chooses the hotel.
Say the man pays $40 a night at the hotel. Over 14 days, that costs him $560. In other words, he’s paying a month’s worth of apartment rent for half a month in a hotel. So much for savings.
When it comes to nighttime on the streets, one thing is different this year: the Clean and Safety Team. Funded by private donations and a special tax on downtown businesses, these goldenrod-clad guards patrol the downtown area. Their job is broad-ranging, but part of it is to move homeless people along when they’re caught sleeping downtown.
Until recently, the yellowshirts (as they are nicknamed) would call it quits around 11:30 p.m. Homeless people knew this, and they waited until then to lie down.
Now, the yellowshirts have a third shift that goes late into the night. There are two ways to look at this:
- The streets will be safer at night. Daniel Long, the team’s homeless outreach coordinator, called the yellowshirts “the eyes and ears of law enforcement” and said they’ve helped solve several crimes downtown with the cooperation of the homeless.
- Things might get ugly at night. For some, like my homeless friend Tommy Capps, the late-night shift means it’s hard to get any sleep. When I stayed outside with him one night, we got to sleep around 11:30 p.m. and woke up at 4 a.m. For a few days after the night shift began, Tommy got almost no sleep.
Tommy has expressed concern about the volatile mix of persistent yellowshirts and tired, frustrated street sleepers. Tommy is himself non-confrontational and carries no weapons, but all it would take is one belligerent homeless person to turn things awry.
“One of them could make 20 of us look bad,” Tommy said.
We came back to our ordinary college life Tuesday afternoon, and already I’m taking the things I’ve got for granted: a microwave, a bicycle, a room to call my own.
(Sorry it took so long to post this; I spent a long time trying to eliminate the wind noise and eventually gave up.)
Our three days on the streets confirmed something a close friend told me before I left: We were stepping into a subculture.
When you’re homeless for a while, you develop a keen eye for fellow homeless people. And when someone new enters your community, you’re naturally curious. That’s why, within a few blocks of leaving our apartment, we were questioned by an older homeless man.
“You two running away from home?” he asked, stopping to lean on his cane as we passed him. Everyone wanted to know our story. It’s an icebreaker, like asking a college kid what his major is. The next question was usually a request for cigarettes. As I’ve said before, everyone smokes out there.
It’s a fairly tight-knit community, partly because everyone hangs out in the same areas downtown: Finlay Park, the Richland County Public Library, and the soup kitchens at Washington Street United Methodist and Ebenezer Lutheran. When I asked someone at the library how to get to the lunchtime soup kitchen, he told me, “Just follow the crowd.”
The homeless community is not just tightly knit, though. It’s isolated. In our three days, we never had a conversation with someone who was not homeless or involved with homeless services. We’d ask folks on the sidewalk for the time, but there was rarely so much as polite chit-chat afterward.
Ernest said he never speaks to people outside of this homeless circle. A soft-spoken man named Craig, whom we met while waiting for the library to open one morning, said that he’s started attending a church downtown, but that he hasn’t let any of the congregants know he’s homeless. He arrives clean-shaven in a collared shirt, and no one suspects a thing.
Being homeless in public was an experience I can only compare to traveling in a country where you don’t know the language. In the markets in India last winter, I could speak to other English-speakers, but I couldn’t get far beyond a nod or a cordial “As-Salamu Alaykum” with most of the natives. Here in Columbia, with several layers of clothing and a sleeping bag tied to my backpack, I was just as much an outsider. All the charm in the world wasn’t going to bring me back into the public’s good graces.
I never experienced any outright meanness from non-homeless people, just courteous distance. Occasionally, though, there are unabashed harassers, like the group of young troublemakers who drove by the bus stops in recent months peppering homeless people with their paintball guns. Or like the college students who confront homeless people in the winter night and settle the argument by dousing them with ice water. Or like the lady in the park who failed to correct her daughter when she walked by my friend Dawn and said, “Mommy, isn’t that a homeless piece of shit?”
I also became aware of two distinct approaches to being homeless. They’re essentially the same two approaches anyone can take in life. But when you’re homeless, they can mean the difference between life and death, or at least between a bed inside and a box on the street.
On the one hand, there are people like my friend Ernest, who talks about shelter life like prison life: “You back down from a fight, you’ll get punked.”
Ernest and I talked often about the very real threats that homeless people pose to each other. There are a few who will not hesitate to rob you in your sleep, and others who pick fights seemingly out of pure meanness. Is it worth fighting these people, though? Ernest seems to think so.
“People get angry at the world and take it out on each other,” he said.
On the other hand, there’s my friend Tommy, who believes so firmly in the virtue of keeping to himself that he stays out of the shelters except for the coldest nights. He camps out in the woods whenever possible, and when he does come inside, he lives by the same sort of maxims they preach at Oliver Gospel Mission.
“You go through the serving line and they give you one biscuit instead of two, be thankful for that,” the preacher said in his sermon Monday night.
There was certainly syncretism of these two approaches, but I learned which people leaned more to one side or the other. My friend John, for instance, stayed with Tommy and was almost always of the same conflict-avoidance mindset. But when he realized someone dangerous was following him to our sleeping spot, he sprung into action.
“The pen is mightier than the sword!” he bellowed, turning and brandishing a ballpoint pen like a shiv. He was banking on the tracker thinking he was crazy enough to do something, and it worked.
Surviving on the streets, though, is just as much about keeping yourself sane. Whether it’s through church or music or a cornball sense of humor (“I’m so broke I can’t even pay attention”), everyone out there needs to maintain a sense of normalcy. Maybe Tommy said it best:
“You’ve got to stay positive.”
Say you’re getting $200 per month on your Electronic Benefit Transfer card. How do you spend it?
You’ll want to stretch that money as far as you can, right? Get the 24-pack of Ramen, a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, maybe some lunchmeat? But if you’re homeless — no pantry, no refrigerator — you buy what you can carry on your back.
I’ve always questioned the spending habits of my homeless friends. When you’ve got next to nothing, why are you spending it on Mountain Dew and cigarettes? Is Starbucks coffee really worth it?
Here in Columbia, you could go entirely without food expenses if you made it to the soup kitchens every day — which is wonderful, don’t get me wrong. But that might be part of the reason why some people end up monetizing their food stamps, either by selling them to each other (in the case of people still receiving paper stamps) or by reselling their EBT-bought food at a marked-up price. As a disclaimer, I am almost certain that both of these activities are illegal. But they happen.
Here’s what you do: Use your EBT card to buy a twelve-pack of soda on sale for $3. Then go into a shelter, Finlay Park, or anywhere the homeless congregate, and sell those sodas individually for 50 cents a pop. Sell them all (not as hard as you’d think), and you turn a $3 profit. You’ve now got $6 in cash where you once had $3 that had to be spent on non-heated food items.
Today we’ll look at some of the decision-making processes that the homeless make around Columbia. What I’m learning is that, like anybody, the homeless rarely make decisions based on pure reason.
Off the streets, we do the same thing every day. We confuse wants and needs. I didn’t need that album I bought last week, and it would have been wiser to buy groceries than a taco at Moe’s. But I quietly told myself the enjoyment was worth the cost.
Ernest told me yesterday that a lot of people don’t take up smoking until they’re homeless. They willingly take on a nonessential expense — a $6 pack per day in some cases – because the nicotine helps them cope. A cigarette is soothing, and it gives you something to do. Smoking is a community-building activity; everyone bums smokes off of everyone. I have met almost no homeless people who don’t smoke.
The American public has a longstanding tradition of judging the ways in which homeless and poor folks spend their money. We see a picture of a man in a soup kitchen using a cell phone, and we question whether he’s in need at all. (On a side note, many homeless people do have cell phones. Everyone needs to stay in contact, and sometimes that’s the most efficient way to do it.)
There’s also the whole issue of savings. What that amounts to, in some cases, is a wad of cash stuffed in a sock that’s tied to your belt loop and tucked into your pants. When you carry all your money around with you, it gets gone pretty quickly. Either somebody finds a way to steal it or you find a way to spend it.
Savings accounts are not unheard of, though. Tommy has one, and he gets half his unemployment check sent to it automatically. I’ve seen men come up off the streets in Columbia, and if memory serves, they have all had savings accounts. Not a bad idea.
When it comes to actually earning money, there’s one logical question: Why don’t you go get a job?
I asked Tommy that question this morning, and he pulled out a sheet from the unemployment office. In order to extend your unemployment benefits, you’ve got to prove you’ve applied 25 different places by getting the potential employers’ signatures. Looking down the sheet, I saw 22 entries from electrical and heating/AC business owners, each with unpromising memos like “Awaiting results” or “Not hiring.”
Is Tommy looking in the wrong places? Doubtful. Electrical work is his specialty; he’s done it since high school. He’s sticking with what he knows, and he’s not afraid to work. Before his previous employer went out of business a year ago, Tommy would leave his sleeping spot at 4 a.m. to walk to work. But South Carolina’s jobless rate was 12.4 percent in December, and some industries are more vulnerable than others.
At what point do you stop trying?
At breakfast at the Oliver Gospel Mission this morning, a man named Claude told me about two important categories of homeless people.
There are the transients, who see their condition as temporary and are working to get out of it as soon as possible. These are the men who never refer to the Mission as “home.”
Then there are the doohinkles. The doohinkles have no intention of leaving the homeless life. To the extent that they can, they’ve gotten comfortable, and they’re no longer looking for jobs.
My guess is that no one is born a doohinkle. It’s a condition into which you let yourself slide after years of running into brick walls. Yes, it’s a choice. But it takes an awful lot to choose not to give up.
We were up before the birds and out with the runners this morning. I’ll not say where we stayed because I don’t want to compromise our friends’ safe spot, but suffice to say it was not the Marriott.
When you sleep on the streets, you are breaking the law. There are urban camping laws here in Columbia. What our friends tell us, though, is that the authorities won’t give you trouble as long as you lay low and clean up after yourself. Usually.
That’s the thing about being homeless: You’re living in a legal gray area, often with no permanent address or photo ID, and you can get picked up for any number of activities that constitute your daily life: loitering, panhandling, public urination, sleeping where you ought not.
Can you avoid these things? Yes, but it means you’re constantly moving, usually broke, spending money at restaurants just to use their restrooms, and sleeping in a shelter with hundreds of strangers.
I should introduce you to our friends.
Tommy, who turned 49 last week without realizing it was his birthday, is an 18-year veteran who served in Cambodia, a skilled electrician and AC worker, and one heck of a guitarist. He taught me Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page” yesterday on Christine, the weathered Fender acoustic he named after his mother.
Ernest, 31, worked on the assembly and teardown crew for a carnival for years and is trying to get back up to Indiana where he can get a similar job. He grew up in Cincinnati, had a rocky relationship with his parents, stayed with a foster family for a while, and spent time in jail for shooting someone’s car with a BB gun. He is generous with what he has; he bought sandwiches for Matt and me yesterday and hands out cigarettes to all who ask.
Dawn, 33, is a mother of three and a gentle spirit. She went to celebrate her daughter’s eighth birthday yesterday and came back heartbroken, sick of the streets and wanting to be with her children more often. Still, she might accompany Ernest up north if the two can save up and get a bus ticket.
John is Tommy’s good friend. We haven’t gotten to know him very well yet, but he’s been helpful and has a disarming sense of humor.
It would take pages to sum up everything that happened yesterday, so I’ll instead share a few things I’ve learned:
- You sleep on cardboard boxes, not in them. Break them down and pile them three high, and you’ve got yourself a sidewalk Serta.
- Everyone loves an underdog – especially the homeless. Tommy, and several other people I’ve met, feed the strays of Columbia. “I could’ve used that $3 for more cigarettes, but it’ll do more good in a kitty’s belly,” Tommy told me.
- You really won’t starve here, but you might not get many vegetables. Here’s what I ate yesterday: one Chick-o-Stick, one roast beef and Swiss cold sub sandwich, half a Hershey bar, two beef tacos, one Now and Later (banana-flavored).
- One of the obstacles many homeless people face in getting a job is clothing. I asked some of the guys a blunt question last night outside of Starbucks: If you’ve got all this time during the day, what’s keeping you from applying for a job? Their answer was that potential employers can tell when you’re homeless. They said that if you’re wearing dirty clothes and carrying your world on your back, and if you bear the inevitable BO that comes with spending most of your day outside, they assume you’ll spend your first paycheck either on drugs or on a ticket out of town. So how about it, churches and service providers? A free laundry service? Seems like it could make a difference.
- Food stamps go for 50 cents to the dollar on the black market.
- Some homeless people sleep like I do during exam week. By the time the yellowshirts (jonquil-clad workers from City Center Partnership who will tell you to move along if you lie down downtown) had called it a night and we’d army-crawled our way to the safe spot, it was 11:30 p.m. Our alarm clock was the 4 a.m. bells at St. Peter’s, and we cleared off before we became a nuisance to the businessmen.
- Since you can’t bring sleeping bags into the Richland County Public Library, storage is a big deal. You can hide your pack in the bushes in Finlay, but, as Ernest learned yesterday, sometimes scavengers will find your stuff. Tommy pays a friend $15 a month to let him store his guitar during the day.
- “Sally” is the Salvation Army. The “Breezeway Inn” is where we stayed last night.
- It’s not panhandling if you don’t ask for money. Tommy was toting his guitar through a Bi-Lo parking lot Saturday night and got approached by a couple who wanted to dance the shag. He obliged with a reggae song, a crowd gathered to dance, and he made $100.
The things that will soon be my only possessions are at the foot of my bed. As you can see from the video, those things don’t amount to much.*
It’s Saturday night, and, come Sunday morning, we’re heading out. Never before have the words “heading out” carried so much weight.
We’re not just going outside. We’re leaving behind a lifestyle of privilege and security, albeit only briefly. We’re going out into a world where nothing is certain and precious few rules can be enforced.
The people who will be showing us the city over the next three days have a subculture all their own, and I’m bracing myself for a sort of cultural whiplash. Yesterday, I took notes in class and bought my dad a vinyl album at Papa Jazz; tomorrow, I’ll make mental notes on the streets and have nothing to spend at the stores.
You could say I’m anxious, but I’m not afraid anymore. I believe we’re in capable hands.
There are a lot of people back home who — through no merit of my own — love me, and I know they’ll be pacing the floor a lot while we’re out there. I’m beginning to understand the mindset of the homeless people who never give out their real names for fear their families will find out what’s become of them. Who would want to put their loved ones through this stress?
I’m anxious because I know we’ll run into homeless people who want no part of this naïve schoolboy project. Some of them, when they find out what we’re doing, will find it intrusive and obnoxious. Such is journalism, I suppose.
Wayne Fields, who directs the Oliver Gospel Mission downtown, told me that he once considered doing something along the lines of this project while he was working with the homeless in Pennsylvania. But he said he ran into the same problem we did: His anonymity was shot.
“Everyone on the streets there knew who I was,” he said.
Initially, Matt and I had considered going out there anonymously, living and speaking as if we were two newly homeless people who’d just arrived in town. But that would have been dishonest and a hard sell. Besides, we’ve been around Columbia too long, and, thanks especially to the local news coverage of our project, the word is already out.
If anybody knows what’s going on in Columbia, it’s the homeless people. Some guys I know will spend hours at the library every day poring over newspapers from around the state and reading news online. And when you’ve got little to entertain yourself at night but talk, word spreads fast. Odds are there are homeless people reading this right now.
As for the safety issue: I know we are putting ourselves in harm’s way. I’ve received plenty of sobering warnings and one jolting wakeup call. But I believe that the potential for good to come out of this project is well worth the risk.
Earlier today, I gave the keynote speech at a convention for high school journalists and advisers. I got a little grandiose toward the end about the power of good journalism, and I’d like to end this entry with a paraphrase of something I said at the end — something that I hope will hold true about this project:
“As journalists, you have a chance to do something incredible. What you can do is you can grab your reader by the collar, pull him down to the level of the people you’re writing about, and say, ‘Look this man in the eyes. This is your neighbor, out here digging through the trash for his dinner. This is your sister who got raped downtown and left out in the cold. This is somebody’s brother, somebody’s friend, somebody’s daughter. What are you going to do about it?’”
* In addition to what I listed in the video, I will also bring a can of pepper spray (at the request of my mother) and a toothbrush (at the persistent, twice-a-year request of my dental hygienist).
Here’s the new plan: On March 7, my roommate and I will head outside in Columbia, S.C. But we won’t be out there alone.
Partly due to our much-publicized run-in a couple of weeks ago, and partly due to a lot of soul-searching and heavy thinking on my part, we’re going about this homeless project differently. We’ll be accompanying some close friends who’ve been living on the streets awhile, and we’ll only spend Sunday through Tuesday on the streets.
Does this mean we’re wimping out? Sure. I’m fine with saying that. Living homeless is dangerous, and I lack the courage to stick it out for even one week. This was never about bravery, anyway.
So what will we do with the rest of our Spring Break after Tuesday? We’ll still be bringing you stories about homelessness in Columbia. Since we’ll be able to come back to the comforts of home at the end of the day, we’ll shoot video and dig deeper in a more straightforward journalistic sense.
We want to look, for instance, at the process of obtaining a photo ID (and maybe also a voter registration) when you start with nothing. We’ll talk to some families about the impact of homelessness on the home front.
This was a tough decision to make — we’ve been agonizing over it since Feb. 19 — but I think it will make this project safer and more effective.
Soon after our test-run holdup, friends and experts started flooding my inbox with advice. We learned that the homeless shelters had been full to capacity recently, and we certainly didn’t want to kick someone else out on our account. Some people who had initially raised their eyebrows when I consulted them about the project now voiced their objections more firmly. Here’s what one homeless case worker wrote in an e-mail:
“I was hesitant in helping you before and was tempted to tell you not to do it but failed to act on it. That was my mistake. I would advise you with the current situation as it stands that you not try to experience homeless culture, because it is a safety issue.”
Others put it more bluntly, telling me in essence that the original plan — to spend a week out there on our own — was a good way to get stabbed. I’ve learned that homeless people aren’t just vulnerable to hunger or the elements. Perhaps more than anyone, they’re exposed to our city’s criminal elements.
While doubts waxed and waned in my mind, something remarkable happened: Independently, four different homeless people offered to stick with my roommate and me during the project.
I’ll not give out their names just yet because we’ve not established how they want to be identified, but they are all steadfast friends. We’ve shared meals, celebrated birthdays, written songs, prayed together, and helped each other out when possible. Their kind offers reminded me why I wanted to do this project in the first place: to highlight the struggles and common dignity of our homeless neighbors. Anyone who thinks all homeless people are lazy, dangerous, or addicted to drugs would do well to meet my friends.
We’ll still be doing this with next to nothing: sleeping bags, flashlights, notebook, pen. But we’ll be much smarter about where we go and how we conduct ourselves at night. My friends and I will have each other’s backs. Still interested? Read on.