William Hayes and Chris Long are accustomed to playing football inside the Edward Jones Dome.
Panhandling outside of it? Not so much.
That's what the best friends and defensive ends on the St. Louis Rams were doing this past March, though, dressed in a disguise of secondhand clothing and makeup, ESPN reported in a new documentary exploring their experiences. The Rams wanted to see if they could live like someone who is homeless -- an idea that previously came to Hayes during a ride on the team bus.
"I wasn't going to let him do that alone," Long told ESPN of his friend's idea. "I'm sure he wouldn't let me, either."
There were 1,328 homeless people counted in January 2014 in St. Louis, according to the city. Although the figure marked a 6.7 percent drop from the year before, the survey found 70 people in the Gateway City were living unsheltered in places like public parks and parked cars -- locations that don't suffice when it comes to harsh weather, as Long and Hayes discovered.
"It was the worst night I've ever had in my life," Hayes said in the documentary. The athletes had just spent the night in the back of an abandoned truck while the temperature dropped to 38 degrees. "My body hurts so bad right now."
The cold wasn't the only challenge Long and Hayes had to endure -- stereotyping based off of their appearances led to unwelcome interactions with law enforcement, Long explained.
"If we were in nicer clothes or our appearance was different, maybe we wouldn't be stopped or kind of questioned the way we were," he said after being approached by police officers for simply walking down the street. "You're not a normal, quote-unquote, person anymore."
The eye-opening experience prompted Long and Hayes to help two chronically homeless people they'd come across -- Marty and Nancy. The football players paid for a two-month hotel stay for Marty and Nancy -- as well as disposable cell phones, groceries and bus passes -- in hopes that the gesture would help lead them to stable housing down the road.
Since the documentary was filmed, Nancy began receiving help through outreach support and Marty gained employment in construction, according to ESPN.
"When you go through it, you sit there and you listen a little bit, you converse with people and you realize the causes of homelessness are so multiple and so layered," Long explained. "What I do know more about now is the experience of being homeless and what these people might feel for just a day."
Nationally, the U.S. has made strides in combating homelessness in recent years.
A report released earlier this year by the National Alliance to End Homelessness found that the number of people experiencing homelessness on a single night dropped 2.3 percent between 2013 and 2014. The report also recorded declines among every major sub-population of homeless individuals, such as veterans, the chronically homeless and families.
Since the alliance began collecting figures documented by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 2007, overall homelessness and homelessness within every sub-population has recorded declines.
To view the whole documentary on Long and Hayes' experience, click here.
To help fight homelessness on a national scale, support PATH (People Assisting The Homeless) by using the Crowdrise widget below.