Archive for the ‘Preparations’ Category
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.
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.
What’s my angle? That’s a question I’ve been getting a lot lately.
My simple answer is that I want to learn as much as possible about the homeless experience in my city. The best I can hope for is to paint a realistic portrait of life on Columbia’s streets.
My complicated answer is an ever-expanding list of questions. I’ve heard a lot of outlandish and unsettling things from the homeless people I know in Columbia, and I want to check them out. Here are a few for starters. Feel free to let me know what you know on these topics, and by all means suggest more topics I should investigate.
1. Is there really homeless prostitution downtown? I’ve heard about this on several occasions, and the story usually goes something like this: Upper-middle-class men cruise the main strips in their cars, slowing when they approach clusters of homeless men. They roll down their windows and offer money for sex, and if one of the homeless men is desperate enough — often for a drug fix — he gets in the car.
Here’s Lightfoot, who chose not to use his real name for this interview, talking about the prostitution he said he has witnessed in his months living on Columbia’s streets:
Does this really happen in our city? I’ll be asking around and keeping my eyes peeled to find out.
2. What’s it like in the shelters? I’m involved with a homeless ministry that takes dinner to the bus stops once a week, and we occasionally run into people who say they won’t go to the shelters, even when it’s below freezing. Some have been banned for behavioral or drug issues, but others tell us they’re avoiding either the spread of germs or the nightly potential for fights to break out. What are conditions really like in there? What does it take to keep the peace and to keep people clean and healthy?
3. How common is it for homeless people in Columbia to have savings accounts? Some have said that helping people open accounts is one of the keys to ending poverty.
4. What do homeless people think about the welfare services and public institutions around Columbia? What are they saying, for instance, about MIRCI or the Salvation Army? Do they see CMRTA as a reliable way to get around town? Do they take advantage of free health care when they need it?
5. Can families stick together on the streets? Many shelters are for men or women exclusively, and I hear stories from time to time of couples who have to part ways while they’re homeless.
6. Are the day labor agencies viable places to pull yourself up by the bootstraps? Is it possible to find steady enough work there with good enough pay when you’re trying to get off the streets?
7. How effective are faith-based aid groups at helping the homeless? One encouraging thing I’ve heard from several homeless people is that, thanks to the churches, nobody starves to death in Columbia. But are there cases where you have to sit through a sermon just to get lunch? What is a homeless person’s spiritual life like? When you’re trying to get some help and you’re living in the Bible Belt, does it behoove you to talk about Jesus — even if you don’t really believe?
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.
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”?
Even when I am living on the streets, I will be far from homeless.
As several people have pointed out in the past week — some more subtly than others — I’m just some privileged white kid who thinks he can urban-camp for a week and understand what it’s like to be homeless. Point taken.
There is a lot more to being homeless than not having a bed to call your own, and I realize that. The things I’ll be experiencing during my homeless week are only the basic, physical privations.
I met a woman named Dawn last weekend in Finlay Park. She’d been out on the streets for a month, and she was getting around on crutches with a sprained foot. She had experienced the cruelty of strangers and the cold of our city in the dead of winter. But in the midst of all those things, here’s what she said was the worst part:
I have no children, so I won’t experience the anguish of being unable to provide for them. In a way, I’m being spared the worst.
Another important shortcoming of my homeless week: I’m planning this out. I’ll have some warm clothes, a rough itinerary for each day, and a definite ending date. This is not how homelessness works. Here’s how Mike, whom I also met in Finlay Park that day, explained his homeless experience:
“Homelessness is just something that happens to you. It’s not something you plan on. Five years ago, being homeless was the last thing I thought I was gonna be. I had a good family, my wife worked for a senator, and you know, I have a problem with alcoholism, and it just led from one thing to another and it kept getting worse and worse, and then the next thing I knew it was I didn’t have anywhere to go, so I had to try to find places to sleep.”
A far cry from my situation, to be sure. I’ve met recovering drug addicts who can’t even piece together a narrative of how they got where they are. The sheer uncertainty of circumstances can take a toll on people’s minds. To know neither where you are going nor where you have been is a deeply troubling thing.
What’s more, I* have no handicaps. I was reminded of this today by a homeless man named Albert. Albert is an older black man with a ready smile and a penchant for talking about God, and he has no legs. He told me he lost them in an accident involving a bulldozer.
I was driving up Gregg Street when Albert approached me in a manual wheelchair. He was having trouble getting up the hill, and he said he would appreciate a lift.
I asked him if he’d like me to push him or help him into the passenger seat, but he shook his head and said, “Just roll down one of your windows for me.”
He gripped the back edge of a window frame as I slowly ski-lifted him all the way up the hill, and then he thanked me and rolled on.
I am not mentally disabled. I am not heartbroken. I am not an Army veteran with PTSD. But these are key elements of so many homeless stories I have heard already.
That’s the thing: I’m not just heading out on the streets to tell my story. I’m doing this to hear others’ stories.
As far as the personal experience, my expectations go about as far as this description, given to me by a man named John whom I met on the steps behind Richland County Public Library:
“When you’re on the streets, this is your pillow,” John said as he set his backpack down.
“This is your blanket,” he said, patting his camouflage fatigue jacket.
“And this is your bed,” he said, lowering himself onto the concrete, staring straight at me.
* I should here note that “I” has become “we.” My roommate Matt will be accompanying me on the streets for reasons of safety and perspective. So all you moms out there can breathe a little easier.
UPDATE: Plans have shifted. We’re still doing this project, but we’re going about it differently. Read more about it here.
Here’s the idea: On March 7, 2010, I will head outside in Columbia, S.C. For one week, I will leave behind my apartment, my money, my food — almost everything except the clothes on my back. My purpose? To document the homeless experience in my city firsthand.
Throughout that week, I will share my experiences via computers at the public library. I am prepared to eat at soup kitchens, sleep on park benches, beg, dumpster dive, and generally do what it takes to survive in an urban environment. But this is not about how tough or resourceful I am. It’s about the people who do this every day — 853 in Richland County by the last count.
Other people have done this sort of thing before, and under much more difficult circumstances. The unique thing about what I’m undertaking, I think, is that you’ll be able to follow along daily as my week unfolds. By all means, tell me what to expect. Tell me if I’m ever wrong or casting things in a false light. And if you are or have ever been homeless, tell me your story.
In the coming weeks, I’ll be conducting some interviews and keeping you posted on my preparations, so stay tuned. I think we’re going to learn a lot.