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Homeless in Columbia: Shifting Gears After a Tense Night

05/04/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

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.

When he pointed the shotgun at my chest, I didn't see my life flash before my eyes. I didn't bargain with God for another chance at living. I didn't fight; I didn't run; I didn't think at all.

It was the night of Feb. 19, and my roommate and I had just laid out our sleeping bags for a test run on the streets of Columbia.

As we hunkered down on the park benches, three guys approached us on the path. I kept still and hoped they wouldn't give us any trouble, figuring the worst we'd get was a heckling by some sons of Southern gentry.

When they were within feet of the gazebo, one of the guys said, "What you got?"

We quickly realized this meant they wanted our valuables, so we stood with our hands raised and complied. We told them we had nothing they'd want and offered our bags to be searched, and then they pulled out the guns: a pistol aimed at Matt and what looked like a sawed-off shotgun aimed at me.

From there, it was a blurred rush to go through my five layers of clothing and turn all my pockets inside out. They took what little we had to offer -- pens, books, gloves, an apartment key -- and threw them aside, thunking and tinkling off the gazebo ceiling and concrete floor.

When they were convinced that we really were worthless, the one with the shotgun gave me an open-palmed smack and pushed me onto the bench, and Matt got two pistol-whips on the back of his head.

And then they were gone, sprinting into the quiet Columbia night.

Partly due to this run-in, and partly due to a lot of soul-searching and heavy thinking on my part, we're going about this homeless project differently. We'll be accompanying some close friends who've been living on the streets awhile, and we'll only spend Sunday through Tuesday on the streets.

Does this mean we're wimping out? Sure. I'm fine with saying that. Living homeless is dangerous, and I lack the courage to stick it out even for one week. This was never about bravery, anyway.

So what will we do with the rest of our Spring Break after Tuesday? We'll still be bringing you stories from the streets. Since we'll be able to come back to the comforts of home at the end of the day, we'll shoot video and dig deeper in a more straightforward journalistic sense.

We want to look, for instance, at the process of obtaining a photo ID (and maybe also a voter registration) when you start with nothing. We'll talk to some families about the impact of homelessness on the home front.

This was a tough decision to make -- we've been agonizing over it since Feb. 19 -- but I think it will make this project safer and more effective.

Soon after our test-run holdup, friends and experts started flooding my inbox with advice. We learned that the homeless shelters had been full to capacity recently, and we certainly didn't want to kick someone else out on our account. Some people who had initially raised their eyebrows when I consulted them about the project now voiced their objections more firmly. Here's what one homeless caseworker wrote in an e-mail:

"I was hesitant in helping you before and was tempted to tell you not to do it but failed to act on it. That was my mistake. I would advise you with the current situation as it stands that you not try to experience homeless culture, because it is a safety issue."

Others put it more bluntly, telling me in essence that the original plan -- to spend a week out there on our own -- was a good way to get stabbed. I've learned that homeless people aren't just vulnerable to hunger or the elements. Perhaps more than anyone, they're exposed to our city's criminal elements.

While doubts waxed and waned in my mind, something remarkable happened: Independently, four different homeless people offered to stick with my roommate and me during the project.

I'll not give out their names just yet because we've not established how they want to be identified, but they are all steadfast friends. We've shared meals, celebrated birthdays, written songs, prayed together, and helped each other out when possible. Their kind offers reminded me why I wanted to do this project in the first place: to highlight the struggles and common dignity of our homeless neighbors. Anyone who thinks all homeless people are lazy, dangerous, or addicted to drugs would do well to meet my friends.

We'll still be doing this with next to nothing: sleeping bags, flashlights, notebook, pen. But we'll be much smarter about where we go and how we conduct ourselves at night. My friends and I will have each other's backs. Still interested? Read on.

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