Posts Tagged ‘subculture’

We came back to our ordinary college life Tuesday afternoon, and already I’m taking the things I’ve got for granted: a microwave, a bicycle, a room to call my own.

(Sorry it took so long to post this; I spent a long time trying to eliminate the wind noise and eventually gave up.)

Our three days on the streets confirmed something a close friend told me before I left: We were stepping into a subculture.

When you’re homeless for a while, you develop a keen eye for fellow homeless people. And when someone new enters your community, you’re naturally curious. That’s why, within a few blocks of leaving our apartment, we were questioned by an older homeless man.

“You two running away from home?” he asked, stopping to lean on his cane as we passed him. Everyone wanted to know our story. It’s an icebreaker, like asking a college kid what his major is. The next question was usually a request for cigarettes. As I’ve said before, everyone smokes out there.

It’s a fairly tight-knit community, partly because everyone hangs out in the same areas downtown: Finlay Park, the Richland County Public Library, and the soup kitchens at Washington Street United Methodist and Ebenezer Lutheran. When I asked someone at the library how to get to the lunchtime soup kitchen, he told me, “Just follow the crowd.”

The homeless community is not just tightly knit, though. It’s isolated. In our three days, we never had a conversation with someone who was not homeless or involved with homeless services. We’d ask folks on the sidewalk for the time, but there was rarely so much as polite chit-chat afterward.

Ernest said he never speaks to people outside of this homeless circle. A soft-spoken man named Craig, whom we met while waiting for the library to open one morning, said that he’s started attending a church downtown, but that he hasn’t let any of the congregants know he’s homeless. He arrives clean-shaven in a collared shirt, and no one suspects a thing.

Being homeless in public was an experience I can only compare to traveling in a country where you don’t know the language. In the markets in India last winter, I could speak to other English-speakers, but I couldn’t get far beyond a nod or a cordial As-Salamu Alaykum” with most of the natives. Here in Columbia, with several layers of clothing and a sleeping bag tied to my backpack, I was just as much an outsider. All the charm in the world wasn’t going to bring me back into the public’s good graces.

I never experienced any outright meanness from non-homeless people, just courteous distance. Occasionally, though, there are unabashed harassers, like the group of young troublemakers who drove by the bus stops in recent months peppering homeless people with their paintball guns. Or like the college students who confront homeless people in the winter night and settle the argument by dousing them with ice water. Or like the lady in the park who failed to correct her daughter when she walked by my friend Dawn and said, “Mommy, isn’t that a homeless piece of shit?”

I also became aware of two distinct approaches to being homeless. They’re essentially the same two approaches anyone can take in life. But when you’re homeless, they can mean the difference between life and death, or at least between a bed inside and a box on the street.

On the one hand, there are people like my friend Ernest, who talks about shelter life like prison life: “You back down from a fight, you’ll get punked.”

Ernest and I talked often about the very real threats that homeless people pose to each other. There are a few who will not hesitate to rob you in your sleep, and others who pick fights seemingly out of pure meanness. Is it worth fighting these people, though? Ernest seems to think so.

“People get angry at the world and take it out on each other,” he said.

On the other hand, there’s my friend Tommy, who believes so firmly in the virtue of keeping to himself that he stays out of the shelters except for the coldest nights. He camps out in the woods whenever possible, and when he does come inside, he lives by the same sort of maxims they preach at Oliver Gospel Mission.

“You go through the serving line and they give you one biscuit instead of two, be thankful for that,” the preacher said in his sermon Monday night.

There was certainly syncretism of these two approaches, but I learned which people leaned more to one side or the other. My friend John, for instance, stayed with Tommy and was almost always of the same conflict-avoidance mindset. But when he realized someone dangerous was following him to our sleeping spot, he sprung into action.

“The pen is mightier than the sword!” he bellowed, turning and brandishing a ballpoint pen like a shiv. He was banking on the tracker thinking he was crazy enough to do something, and it worked.

Surviving on the streets, though, is just as much about keeping yourself sane. Whether it’s through church or music or a cornball sense of humor (“I’m so broke I can’t even pay attention”), everyone out there needs to maintain a sense of normalcy. Maybe Tommy said it best:

“You’ve got to stay positive.”

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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).