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Homeless in Columbia: Making Money, Making Decisions

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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.

Say you're getting $200 per month on your Electronic Benefit Transfer card. How do you spend it?

You'll want to stretch that money as far as you can, right? Get the 24-pack of Ramen, a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, maybe some lunchmeat? But if you're homeless -- no pantry, no refrigerator -- you buy what you can carry on your back.

I've always questioned the spending habits of my homeless friends. When you've got next to nothing, why are you spending it on Mountain Dew and cigarettes? Is Starbucks coffee really worth it?

Here in Columbia, you could go entirely without food expenses if you made it to the soup kitchens every day -- which is wonderful, don't get me wrong. But that might be part of the reason why some people end up monetizing their food stamps, either by selling them to each other (in the case of people still receiving paper stamps) or by reselling their EBT-bought food at a marked-up price. As a disclaimer, I am almost certain that both of these activities are illegal. But they happen.

Here's what you do: Use your EBT card to buy a twelve-pack of soda on sale for $3. Then go into a shelter, Finlay Park, or anywhere the homeless congregate, and sell those sodas individually for 50 cents a pop. Sell them all (not as hard as you'd think), and you turn a $3 profit. You've now got $6 in cash where you once had $3 that had to be spent on non-heated food items.

Today we'll look at some of the decision-making processes that the homeless make around Columbia. What I'm learning is that, like anybody, the homeless rarely make decisions based on pure reason.

Off the streets, we do the same thing every day. We confuse wants and needs. I didn't need that album I bought last week, and it would have been wiser to buy groceries than a taco at Moe's. But I quietly told myself the enjoyment was worth the cost.

Ernest told me yesterday that a lot of people don't take up smoking until they're homeless. They willingly take on a nonessential expense -- a $6 pack per day in some cases -- because the nicotine helps them cope. A cigarette is soothing, and it gives you something to do. Smoking is a community-building activity; everyone bums smokes off of everyone. I have met almost no homeless people who don't smoke.

The American public has a longstanding tradition of judging the ways in which homeless and poor folks spend their money. We see a picture of a man in a soup kitchen using a cell phone, and we question whether he's in need at all. (On a side note, many homeless people do have cell phones. Everyone needs to stay in contact, and sometimes that's the most efficient way to do it.)

There's also the whole issue of savings. What that amounts to, in some cases, is a wad of cash stuffed in a sock that's tied to your belt loop and tucked into your pants. When you carry all your money around with you, it gets gone pretty quickly. Either somebody finds a way to steal it or you find a way to spend it. Put a $100 bill in my pocket, and suddenly the world is my oyster.

Savings accounts are not unheard of, though. Tommy has one, and he gets half his unemployment check sent to it automatically. I've seen men come up off the streets in Columbia, and if memory serves, they have all had savings accounts. Not a bad idea.

When it comes to actually earning money, there's one logical question: Why don't you go get a job?

I asked Tommy that question this morning, and he pulled out a sheet from the unemployment office. In order to extend your unemployment benefits, you've got to prove you've applied 25 different places by getting the potential employers' signatures. Looking down the sheet, I saw 22 entries from electrical and heating/AC business owners, each with unpromising memos like "Awaiting results" or "Not hiring."

Is Tommy looking in the wrong places? Doubtful. Electrical work is his specialty; he's done it since high school. He's sticking with what he knows, and he's not afraid to work. Before his previous employer went out of business a year ago, Tommy would leave his sleeping spot at 4 a.m. to walk to work. But South Carolina's jobless rate was 12.4 percent in December, and some industries are more vulnerable than others.

At what point do you stop trying?

At breakfast at the Oliver Gospel Mission this morning, a man named Claude told me about two important categories of homeless people.

There are the transients, who see their condition as temporary and are working to get out of it as soon as possible. These are the men who never refer to the Mission as "home."

Then there are the doohinkles. The doohinkles have no intention of leaving the homeless life. To the extent that they can, they've gotten comfortable, and they're no longer looking for jobs.

My guess is that no one is born a doohinkle. It's a condition into which you let yourself slide after years of running into brick walls. Yes, it's a choice. But it takes an awful lot to choose not to give up.