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Homeless in Columbia: Heading Outside to Learn (VIDEO)

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An explanation: My roommate and I will be spending three days on the streets to learn about the homeless experience in Columbia, S.C. Follow along at www.HomelessInColumbia.com.

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 naive 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 son, somebody's friend, somebody's brother. 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).