In the first chapters of the seminal Appalachian Trail travelogue A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson talks about the books he read leading up to his journey. Apparently, he mostly read about bears.

Following Bryson’s lead, I thought I’d share what I’ve been reading as I prepare for my homeless week. I just finished a book by Mike Yankoski called Under the Overpass (Multnomah Publishers, 2005). Mike did basically the same thing I’ll be doing, except that he was on the streets for five months in six different cities.

I took a few things away from it:

1. It’s best not to be alone out there. Mike’s a pretty big guy, but even he had a friend along for safety’s sake.

2. Panhandling is hit-and-miss, even when you play an instrument. I think this will be especially true in Columbia, which — despite the ever-so-inviting “Famously Hot” ad campaign — is by no means a tourist town.

3. For Christians, like Mike and me, there’s no excuse for not helping the homeless. He described several run-ins with churchgoing folks that raised that clever old question: How can you worship a homeless man on Sunday and ignore one on Monday?

4. Very quickly, my life will become all about securing the bare necessities: food, water, shelter, a place to go to the bathroom, maybe a shower and a change of clothes. That seems obvious enough, but Mike writes about how the constant struggle to obtain those things redefined his dignity and self-respect.

Me reading Scratch Beginnings

Today, I started reading a book by Adam Shepard called Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream (HarperCollins, 2008). After graduating from college, the author decided to test out the idea that anyone can pull himself up from poverty with enough elbow grease. To do this, he took a train to Charleston, S.C., with $25 in his pocket and checked into a shelter.

He gave himself one year to get a car, an apartment, $2,500 in cash, and a reasonable chance of career advancement without using his degree or connections. In the introduction, he admits his optimism — he thought it could be done.

I tend to agree with him. On the other hand, I’ve met enough hard-working poor people to have my doubts. Most of the great rags-to-riches stories involve extraordinarily talented individuals — artists, politicians, salesmen, athletes. But what if you’ve got nothing and you’re ordinary? Do you still have a shot?

What do you think? Do you believe in what James Truslow Adams called “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement”?

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  1. I really admire all that you’re doing Paul, I’ll be praying for your and Matt’s safety.

    God bless

  2. Joey Current

    Paul,

    I think that with the economy the way it is right now, it will be almost impossible for poor ordinary people to find a job with advancement opportunities without some special talents or skills. People who have college degrees (and more than 25 dollars in the bank) are having a hard time finding jobs. I am finding it more and more apparent that in today’s job market, it is more about who you know and less about what qualifications you have. That said, once you land a job hard work will take you far, but getting yourself in the position where your hard work will pay off at least at this time seems next to impossible. It would be nice if more “Pursuit of Happiness” stories were a reality.

    • Erin Henneberry

      I have taken enough sociology classes and read enough statistics to know that the “American Dream” is far from attainable for many people. We live in a system based on privledge, and whether or not you want whatever advantages or disadvantages your race/ethnicity, gender, disability status or sexuality give you, you have them. Certain groups (namely blacks) get charged more for new/used cars get higher interest rates for loans and mortgages, are more likely to be denied those loans, and because they cannot get into nicer areas with nicer homes their children by proxy go to poorer schools, are near worse public transit systems, and live in areas with higher crime rates. They are also typically further from better, higher paying jobs. The disabled are routinely denied jobs (illegally) and paid less than minimum wage (legally) because of their disability status.

      We all like to believe that equal opportunity exists in this country. It is what we are taught. It was what our country’s principles are built upon. But the simple truth is that it doesn’t.

      If you have time, I recommend the book Privledge, Power and Difference. It is not specifically about homelessness, but it talks about many of the things that cause people to end up that way, simply because the cards were stacked against them. It is also a very short read and well written, if sometimes repetitive.

  3. I’m glad he believed he could. He probably could. Especially because he’s had a lot of experience knowing success. He’s got resources he can’t strip himself of no matter whether he names them on an application or not. I’m glad he has that. I just wish a lot of people trapped in poverty did too.




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