An explanation: My roommate and I are spending three days on the streets to learn about the homeless experience in Columbia, S.C. Follow along as I blog from the public library at www.HomelessInColumbia.com.
We were up before the birds and out with the runners this morning. I'll not say where we stayed because I don't want to compromise our friends' safe spot, but suffice to say it was not the Marriott.
When you sleep on the streets, you are breaking the law. There are urban camping laws here in Columbia. What our friends tell us, though, is that the authorities won't give you trouble as long as you lay low and clean up after yourself. Usually.
That's the thing about being homeless: You're living in a legal gray area, often with no permanent address or photo ID, and you can get picked up for any number of activities that constitute your daily life: loitering, panhandling, public urination, sleeping where you ought not.
Can you avoid these things? Yes, but it means you're constantly moving, usually broke, spending money at restaurants just to use their restrooms, and sleeping in a shelter with hundreds of strangers.
I should introduce you to our friends.
Tommy, who turned 49 last week without realizing it was his birthday, is an 18-year veteran who served in Cambodia, a skilled electrician and AC worker, and one heck of a guitarist. He taught me Bob Seger's "Turn the Page" yesterday on Christine, the weathered Fender acoustic he named after his mother.
Ernest, 31, worked on the assembly and teardown crew for a circus for years and is trying to get back up to Indiana where he can get a similar job. He grew up in Cincinnati, had a rocky relationship with abusive parents, stayed with a foster family for a while, and spent time in jail for shooting someone's car with a BB gun. He is generous with what he has; he bought sandwiches for Matt and me yesterday and hands out cigarettes to all who ask.
Dawn, 33, is a mother of three and a gentle spirit. She went to celebrate her daughter's eighth birthday yesterday and came back heartbroken, sick of the streets and wanting to be with her children more often. Still, she might accompany Ernest up north if the two can save up and get a bus ticket.
John is Tommy's good friend. We haven't gotten to know him very well yet, but he's been helpful and has a disarming sense of humor.
It would take pages to sum up everything that happened yesterday, so I'll instead share a few things I've learned:
- You sleep on cardboard boxes, not in them. Break them down and pile them three high, and you've got yourself a sidewalk Serta.
- Everyone loves an underdog - especially the homeless. Tommy, and several other people I've met, feed the strays of Columbia. "I could've used that3 for more cigarettes, but it'll do more good in a kitty's belly," Tommy told me.
- You really won't starve here, but you might not get many vegetables. Here's what I ate yesterday: one Chick-o-Stick, one roast beef and Swiss cold sub sandwich, half a Hershey bar, two beef tacos, one Now and Later (banana-flavored).
- One of the obstacles many homeless people face in getting a job is clothing. I asked some of the guys a blunt question last night outside of Starbucks: If you've got all this time during the day, what's keeping you from applying for a job? Their answer was that potential employers can tell when you're homeless. They said that if you're wearing dirty clothes and carrying your world on your back, and if you bear the inevitable BO that comes with spending most of your day outside, they assume you'll spend your first paycheck either on drugs or a ticket out of town. So how about it, churches and service providers? A free laundry service? Seems like it could make a difference.
- Food stamps go for 50 cents to the dollar on the black market.
- Some homeless people sleep like I do during exam week. By the time the yellowshirts (jonquil-clad workers from City Center Partnership who will tell you to move along if you lie down downtown) had called it a night and we'd army-crawled our way to the safe spot, it was 11:30 p.m. Our alarm clock was the 4 a.m. bells at St. Peter's, and we cleared off before we became a nuisance to the businessmen.
- Since you can't bring sleeping bags into the Richland County Public Library, storage is a big deal. You can hide your pack in the bushes in Finlay, but, as Ernest learned yesterday, sometimes scavengers will find your stuff. Tommy pays a friend $15 a month to let him store his guitar during the day.
- "Sally" is the Salvation Army. The "Breezeway Inn" is where we stayed last night.
- It's not panhandling if you don't ask for money. Tommy was toting his guitar through a Bi-Lo parking lot Saturday night and got approached by a couple who wanted to dance the shag. He obliged with a reggae song, a crowd gathered to dance, and he made $100.
It's not over yet, so keep reading.