Posts Tagged ‘dignity’

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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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”?