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.

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  1. Don Bagwell

    This is a wise move, but for a different reason. One lesson I think you learned so far is the impact of the media spotlight. The publicity brought attention to the homeless way of life, but probably compromised your ability to obtain a real story. And possibly put you in more danger. My own experiences doing radio stories was that people embellish, clean up, or change stories if they know someone is watching, for either better or worse depending on their agenda. Knowing that CNN and other media are following your progress would make people wary or guarded. Many homeless people-the one’s you’re putting under the magnifying glass- are probably already aware of your project, because they are surprisingly well-read. Many spend hours in libraries keeping up with current events. And then there’s the street-media of word-of-mouth. So there’s something to be said for anonymity and undercover reporting.

    So that leaves the question-exactly what are you two trying to accomplish now? A broad and extensive overview of a social problem? Or illustrating those issues with personal stories and interviews and case studies? Is this a story you’ll be able to report in an objective manner? Can you walk away once you’re done? Or is this the genesis of a ministry? I’m sure you’ll find a creative way to get the stories for your readers. And find out what YOU really need.

    • Paul Bowers

      The media impact was definitely something we took into consideration as we reformulated. If I could do this over again, I probably wouldn’t publicize it at all before going out, and I’d share about it after the fact. You’re right in saying that anonymity has gone down the tubes at this point — many people on and off the streets know what I’ll be doing now.

      In response to your questions, the purpose of our days on the street will be to share personal stories and a close-up look at homeless life in Columbia. After that’s done, we’ll back up and go for a big-picture view. Hopefully we’ll come away with some new ideas for governments and charity groups to come alongside the homeless in our city.

      Also: The link below seems to be broken. I think you meant http://www.thebenefitbank.com/. Looks like an interesting idea; I’ll take a closer look.

  2. Don Bagwell

    http://www.thebenefitsbank.com is a new concept to help people get the assistance they need.

  3. Akeelah

    Good move, Paul. Can’t wait to read more, but right now it’s 5:30am and I need some sleep. LoL. I got sucked in while being nosy on facebook, then I HAD to read the Gunpoint story. Wow. Our God is SO good. May you bring Him glory in all this and impact the lives of many. I know it’s already starting to affect mine, at least my thoughts anyway.




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