Here's the idea: On March 7, my roommate and I will head outside in Columbia, S.C. For one week, we will leave behind our apartment, our money, our food -- almost everything except the clothes on our backs. Our purpose? To document the homeless experience in our city firsthand.
Each day that week, I will keep you posted via a computer at the public library at HomelessInColumbia.com. We'll 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 we are. It's about the people who do this every day -- 853 in Richland County by the last count.
When I tell people about this project, I usually get one of two reactions. First: Why would you want to do that? Second: You're not going to get the full picture.
I'll respond to the second point first by saying that I absolutely agree. We'll only be out there a week, and we won't be getting the family or social dynamics of homelessness. If you're interested, check out my post explaining this project's limitations.
In regards to the first question: I'm in my third year at the University of South Carolina, which is in the heart of downtown Columbia. Growing up in the suburbs, I was pretty well isolated from poverty. When I came to the city for college, I found myself unable to ignore it.
One thing that fascinates me about city life is the way people get pressed together geographically. I remember in 2008 visiting Chicago's Cabrini-Green neighborhood, where you can look across the street through your housing-project window and see the million-dollar condos of the Gold Coast.
Columbia is divided, no doubt. There are affluent parts of town, seedy parts of town, white parts of town, black parts of town, Mexican parts of town. But those worlds have unavoidable intersections, like the Food Lion on Harden Street where college kids meet homeless panhandlers.
The story of this project begins in those border areas, where, since freshman year, I've gotten to know dozens of people who challenge my worldview and conscience.
How can I rest easy in my apartment while Lisa, who was deserted by the man she followed to this town, drifts in and out of women's shelters?
Can I really go on saying that the poor must pull themselves up by their bootstraps when I know that, for months, able-bodied Eddie has been applying for construction work at the labor agencies and getting jack squat?
Try this: The next time a guy asks you for money, tell him you'd like to buy him a meal. Go to a restaurant, sit down, and get to know him. Learn his story. If you listen -- and I mean really listen -- it will change your life.
Other people have done this sort of project before, and under much more difficult circumstances. The unique thing about what we're undertaking, I think, is that you'll be able to follow along as our week unfolds.
In the days leading up to March 7, I'll be conducting some interviews and keeping you posted on our preparations, so stay tuned at HomelessInColumbia.com. I think we're going to learn a lot.