When he pointed the shotgun at my chest, I didn’t see my life flash before my eyes. I didn’t bargain with God for another chance at living. I didn’t fight; I didn’t run; I didn’t think at all.

Friday night was the first time I was ever held at gunpoint. It was also the first time someone tried to sell me cocaine. Both of these things happened within blocks of the University of South Carolina campus.

It had actually been a pleasant night up until about 1 a.m., when we faced death. Heading out for a sort of trial night on the streets, Matt and I had taken a long walk through town with backpack and sleeping bags in tow. It wasn’t as cold as it had been on previous nights, and we were bundled like children of overprotective parents. I wore five layers, if I recall correctly.

We saw the stark contrasts in different parts of our city, watching theme bars and banks give way to liquor stores and payday lenders. We tried our hand at dumpster diving, coming up with some bitter chocolate baking cups and a mostly-full peach-mango drink.

Early on, a man rode by on a bike near the corner of Harden and Gervais, slowing down with squeaky brakes to make a casual offer:

“Hey guys, I got weed, pills, and coke,” he said. “What’s good?”

We politely declined and headed on.

I’d picked out our sleeping area beforehand, and I thought we were safe there. It was a fairly well-lit park between an all-girls dorm and a busy intersection, and it had a gazebo that would keep us covered in case of rain or snow.

As we laid ourselves down on the park benches, three guys approached us on the path. I kept still and hoped they wouldn’t give us any trouble, figuring the worst we’d get was a heckling by some sons of Southern gentry.

When they were within feet of the gazebo, one of the guys said, “What you got?”

We quickly realized this meant they wanted our valuables, so we stood with our hands raised and complied. We told them we had nothing they’d want and offered our bags to be searched, and then they pulled out the guns: a pistol aimed at Matt and what looked like a sawed-off shotgun aimed at me.

From there, it was a blurred rush to go through my five layers of clothing and turn all my pockets inside out. They took what little we had to offer — pens, books, gloves, an apartment key — and threw them aside, thunking and tinkling off the gazebo ceiling and concrete floor.

When they were convinced that we really were worthless, the one with the shotgun gave me an open-palmed smack and pushed me onto the bench, and Matt got two pistol-whips on the back of his head.

And then they were gone, sprinting toward the Pickens Street gate and then off into the quiet Columbia night.

After jerkily searching through the shrubs to find my key, we hoofed it back to our apartment and called it a night. We phoned the police and stayed up ‘til 3:30 filling out paperwork and answering their questions.

We never got a good look at the three guys’ faces. We could tell they were black and roughly our age, but beyond that everything was obscured by black clothing and bandanas. They seemed jumpy, though more in an amateurish than a drug-addled way. They were nervous, maybe more than we were.

There’s a lot that can go wrong in the city. I know that. I just never pictured it happening within my comfort zone. We like to salve our fears by thinking that all violence, prostitution, and drug-dealing takes place in that far-off world of Other, the part of town that social workers call “troubled” and sorority girls call “sketchy.”

Last night, that mindset came tumbling down. There are no walls. The only thing separating the well-to-do undergrad from the ghetto-raised youth is a couple of city blocks.

What does this mean for me? Honestly, I’m less at ease, although I slept soundly once I was back in my bed. Maybe I’ll have a hard time revisiting that gazebo, which is where I used to stretch before my morning runs. Maybe — and I know this is wrong — I will view my African-American neighbors with suspicion for a while.

But Matt and I agree on one thing: We are undeterred from this homeless project. If anything, this was an appropriate introduction to our upcoming week on the streets. I hear homeless people telling me all the time about getting mugged where they sleep, and it always baffles me. If you’re going to hold people up, why go for the ones with almost no possessions?

I still don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know what it’s like to stare at a gun barrel in the middle of the night with nothing to defend myself and no one to call the cops for me.

I read in my Bible this morning how David said he was like a green tree in the house of God and how he called the Lord the upholder of his life. It’s hard to know where to find security, but I’m finding it in prayer right now.

If I ever meet those three men again, I like to think I will forgive them. Who knows what they’ve been through, and who knows how long they’ll waste away in prison if they’re caught?

As for us, we will be careful. During our homeless week, we’ll find our way into a shelter every night instead of sleeping outside. We will leave our keys with someone else. We will always keep our heads on pivots.

We will never take life for granted.

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  1. Edna Boroski

    I am so thankful that you two are OK. This continues, even in its early stages, to be a most interesting project. It is also a reminder of God’s grace and man’s need for that grace. Hallelujah. Oh. And y’all be careful!

  2. Debbey

    It’s an amazing thing your doing. Most of us will glance out of the window on the cold winter evenings and think that it would be a horrid night to be homeless. Then we settle down to a warm drink and the comfort that our four walls and a roof has to offer, blocking out the image of a cold park bench. It amazes me that here we are in 2010 and we still have our fellow man, blocks away, sleeping in the cold with empty stomachs. What do I do? I get on with life because I am not brave enough to try and do something about it. You are. Your going to be drawing attention to the dangers and probably meeting some, who a year ago would be just like me, some who will be grateful that you will listen, and tell their story. I will be following you on your journey and wishing you the best of luck. x

  3. Don Bagwell

    What a sobering wake-up call in the middle of the night, Paul! It’s certain to give your young mom her first grey hair. This is the second close call I’ve heard this month. My coworker came within inches of losing her life the other week on the way to work when a stray bullet shattered her windshield and pierced the dashboard inches from her body. Wasn’t meant for her, but she would have just as dead. Sixteen year old suspect. Had I not stopped at the bank, that could have been me that morning, since I travel the same route. Violence and evil knows no firm boundaries, nor does it always warn us in advance. James must have known something about this, with all of his “even a vapour” business. I’m sure this experience will strengthen your resolve, and force you to think about where all of this will ultimately lead you.So what do you plan to do with this new chapter? Even so, I’m sure the curious reporter in you will want to interview a few “experts” in the field about what they do to stay as safe as they can. You’ll be wise to take extra careful notes.

  4. Glenna

    Paul – I am so glad that you are OK. Many of us “joke” that we are just 2 paychecks away from being homeless, or that “living in a cardboard box” means less stress…. I myself refer to my teen years as being “homeless” in the sense that both of my parents had passed and I had no home base – but I always had shelter and a safe place to sleep thanks to good friends and their kind parents. Just like others who put themselves in harms way due to desperation, the homeless are victimized over and over again due to the fact that they are vulnerable.

    While adult homeless people are certainly vulnerable, what breaks my heart in a special way are the families with children that are homeless. I wonder what happens to these children when they grow up…. whenever Crisis Ministries sends out requests for children’s underwear and socks I cry (and of course donate). I know you can only take on so much with your project, but I think that many of us see “homeless” as alcoholic and/or drug addicted adult men, and forget that many, if not most homeless people did nothing within their control to become homeless. When you are in the shelters that week, I would like to hear how homeless families deal with the situation. Take care and stay safe my friend…

  5. Glenna

    Sorry – Paul – followed the link to this story only and see now that I’m exploring your blog that you have thought of these things. Bless you!!

    • Paul Bowers

      Glenna, your story is the hidden side of homelessness. We think of adults on drugs when we hear the word “homeless,” but there are at least 8,700 homeless students in South Carolina (http://bit.ly/homelessstudents). Homelessness doesn’t mean living in a box; it means not having a steady place of your own. Whether that means staying in a shelter or staying with friends, it’s about living in transit. I’m so glad you’ve made it out of that way of life, and I hope I can shed some light on stories like yours soon.

  6. Debbey

    I agree Glenna….I have only had the chance to volunteer at the womens shelter one morning to cook breakfast and it’s a sobering site when you see a 19 year old with a 3 week old baby, homeless….Thank God for the shelters and for the people who work tirelessly to man them….and thank God for those like Paul drawing attention to the fact that anyone has the potential to be homeless.

  7. Less Home

    I think to make the experience more realistic you guys should actually *do* the drugs.

    A lot of homeless people beg and busk so they can afford drugs so I don’t really see why you are leaving this part of the experience out.

    • Edna

      Wouldn’t you then be assuming that all homeless people are drug users? Isn’t that a stereotype that needs to be challenged?

    • Don

      Paul, I’m glad you two are doing this and keeping us updated with your blog. It appears some folks need some sensitivity to the plight of others.

  8. I think homeless people get held up a lot for the same reason that disabled kids get abused a lot. Because they’re already down in some way. Because they can’t protect and defend themselves as well. And because the people doing the mugging and hurting know they can get away with it. They’re the bottom of the barrel people. Its not right, but its probably true. At least in the eyes of those who enforce our rules, our order, our establishment.

  9. Erin Henneberry

    Fake wallets will probably piss them off more and they might shoot you. Of course, they might shoot you anyway, out of anger. They attacked you because they thought you were homeless. And the sad truth is that this is probably because the homeless will rarely ever recieve the same consideration by law enforcement and the courts that a suburban middle class person will. There is no one to care if their killer is caught, or even ID them if they’re not in the system. I’m not trying to rag on the justice system here, it’s just a fact. There’s not enough money or manpower to try and protect people who are exposed 24/7. Their main goal is to protect taxpayers, people with money and homes and most importantly, a voice to speak out with when they are ignored. Average robbers and attackers target people and places who are least likely to target them back.

    I’m sure a million people have said this, but take care, literally. This project could easily end up with you and your roommate dead.

    One more thing, someone suggested you actually do drugs to make your experience more “real.” That’s ridiculous. One thing to note though is that if this does happen to you during your week, you may not have a shelter to go to. They may be full, or shut down because of some violence issue. You may have to get held up, and then continue to sleep on the street. Also, I don’t know what the stats are on this, but it would be interesting to see how many homeless actually call the cops after an incident like this.

    • Paul Bowers

      All good points, Erin. We’ve certainly had our eyes peeled since this happened. Thanks for the sage and sobering advice.

  10. A. Iverson

    Respect what you are trying to do. Don’t hold it against people, especially women, who don’t really want to acknowledge beggars. I’m a MSW student and so understand some of the facets of homelessness. Still, I don’t respond well to strangers coming up to me, especially when I am by myself, asking for things.

  11. Jesse

    It’s good that you acknowledge it as “wrong” to view your African American neighbors with suspicion based on your experience. I’m sure you’d agree that regarding ethnicity as the primary factor worth linking to crime (based on a single, admittedly tragic experience) reveals inner-machinations of racism.

    Seems to me an unprejudiced person in your situation, for the future, would simply avoid people who carried sawed-off shotguns–or people who wore bandanas and black clothing, for that matter.

    • Jesse Jackson

      “..regarding ethnicity as the primary factor worth linking to crime reveals inner-machinations of racism.”

      No, regarding ethnicity as the primary factor worth linking to crime reveals a propensity for facts. I’d like to hear your explanation for the statistical link between bandanas/black clothing and crime as compared to the statistical link between ethnicity and crime. Facts are independent of any personal bias or prejudice.

      “The single best indicator of violent crime levels in an area is the percentage of the population that is black and Hispanic.”

      -Race, Crime and Justice in America
      The Color of Crime

      https://docs.google.com/viewer?url=http://www.colorofcrime.com/colorofcrime2005.pdf

      • Jesse

        Good find–you should show this source to Paul. I guess now he can go back to the line about how he’ll be scared of black people from now on and edit out the part about knowing it’s wrong.

      • Malcolm Y

        “Facts are independent of any personal bias or prejudice.”

        You seem to have never taken a course in either the political science or history department; or if you have, change majors now. Facts are completely open to interpretation and spin, and people have been using them like merry-go-rounds for millennia.

        Case in point: New Century Foundation’s report “The Color of Crime.” While we probably shouldn’t call into question the extent to which the statistics it reports are purely manufactured, we should probably at least consider the source: Jared Taylor, NCF’s founder, is a member of numerous white nationalist and supremacist organizations, and contributes regularly to their publications. He strikes me as the perfect candidate for someone who would doctor race/crime statistics.

        Further, if one reads The Color of Crime’s (very miniscule) section on “Poverty and Crime,” one should notice that his arguments rely on the juxtaposition of unrelated categories so as to confuse readers and push through the report’s racist message; comparing apples to oranges, if you will, for the purpose of damning the oranges. It doesn’t address the issue of social disadvantage in any properly constructive way, which is a fundamental basis of any discussion of race and crime.

        The Color of Crime is little more than racist fear-mongering, and its arguments make no sense to anyone who can critique beyond an obvious level.

  12. Rachel

    I learned about the project y’all are doing after reading the article the Daily Gamecock ran about you both being held at gunpoint. I just wanted to say that I’m very happy you both made it out of that situation and I hope the rest of your experiment goes without such incidents.

  1. 1 London The » Paul Bowers: Homeless in Columbia: Shifting Gears After a Tense Night

    [...] due to this run-in, and partly due to a lot of soul-searching and heavy thinking on my part, we’re going about [...]




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