An explanation: My roommate and I spent three days living on the streets to learn about the homeless experience in Columbia, S.C. I'm writing about it at www.HomelessInColumbia.com.
Our three days with the homeless confirmed something a close friend told me before I left: We were stepping into a subculture.
When you're homeless for a while, you develop a keen eye for fellow homeless people. And when someone new enters your community, you're naturally curious. That's why, within a few blocks of leaving our apartment, we were questioned by an older homeless man.
"You two running away from home?" he asked, stopping to lean on his cane as we passed him. Everyone wanted to know our story. It's an icebreaker, like asking a college kid what his major is. The next question was usually a request for cigarettes. As I've said before, everyone smokes out there.
It's a fairly tight-knit community, partly because everyone hangs out in the same areas downtown: Finlay Park, the Richland County Public Library, and the soup kitchens at Washington Street United Methodist and Ebenezer Lutheran. When I asked someone at the library how to get to the lunchtime soup kitchen, he told me, "Just follow the crowd."
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The homeless community is not just tightly knit, though. It's isolated. In our three days, we never had a conversation with someone who was not homeless or involved with homeless services. We'd ask folks on the sidewalk for the time, but there was rarely so much as polite chit-chat afterward.
Ernest said he never speaks to people outside of this homeless circle. A soft-spoken man named Craig, whom we met while waiting for the library to open one morning, said that he's started attending a church downtown, but that he hasn't let any of the congregants know he's homeless. He arrives clean-shaven in a collared shirt, and no one suspects a thing.
Being homeless in public was an experience I can only compare to traveling in a country where you don't know the language. In the markets in India last winter, I could speak to other English-speakers, but I couldn't get far beyond a nod or a cordial "As-Salamu Alaykum" with most of the natives. Here in Columbia, with several layers of clothing and a sleeping bag tied to my backpack, I was just as much an outsider. All the charm in the world wasn't going to bring me back into the public's good graces.
I never experienced any outright meanness from non-homeless people, just courteous distance. Occasionally, though, there are unabashed harassers, like the group of young troublemakers who drove by the bus stops in recent months peppering homeless people with their paintball guns. Or like the college students who confront homeless people in the winter night and settle the argument by dousing them with ice water. Or like the lady in the park who failed to correct her daughter when she walked by my friend Dawn and said, "Mommy, isn't that a homeless piece of shit?"
I also became aware of two distinct approaches to being homeless. They're essentially the same two approaches anyone can take in life. But when you're homeless, they can mean the difference between life and death, or at least between a bed inside and a box on the street.
On the one hand, there are people like my friend Ernest, who talks about shelter life like prison life: "You back down from a fight, you'll get punked."
Ernest and I talked often about the very real threats that homeless people pose to each other. There are a few who will not hesitate to rob you in your sleep, and others who pick fights seemingly out of pure meanness. Is it worth fighting these people, though? Ernest seems to think so.
"People get angry at the world and take it out on each other," he said.
On the other hand, there's my friend Tommy, who believes so firmly in the virtue of keeping to himself that he stays out of the shelters except for the coldest nights. He camps out in the woods whenever possible, and when he does come inside, he lives by the same sort of maxims they preach at Oliver Gospel Mission.
"You go through the serving line and they give you one biscuit instead of two, be thankful for that," the preacher said in his sermon Monday night.
There was certainly syncretism of these two approaches, but I learned which people leaned more to one side or the other. My friend John, for instance, stayed with Tommy and was almost always of the same conflict-avoidance mindset. But when he realized someone dangerous was following him to our sleeping spot, he sprung into action.
"The pen is mightier than the sword!" he bellowed, turning and brandishing a ballpoint pen like a shiv. He was banking on the tracker thinking he was crazy enough to do something, and it worked.
Surviving on the streets, though, is just as much about keeping yourself sane. Whether it's through church or music or a cornball sense of humor ("I'm so broke I can't even pay attention"), everyone out there needs to maintain a sense of normalcy. Maybe Tommy said it best:
"You've got to stay positive."