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Nicole Hill/© 2008 The Christian Science Monitor/

Homeless in Charleston

Books | Starting life from scratch in a new city wasn't what author Adam Shepard thought it would be

Issue: "New breed of homeless," Feb. 28, 2009

Hope may float but hopelessness still sells. Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, about poor Americans stuck in crummy jobs, made more than nickels and dimes for her publisher and herself. But one recent college graduate, Adam Shepard, read Ehrenreich and decided to try his own experiment: Start out in a strange city with the clothes on his back, $25, and almost nothing else, and see if after a year-without using his college degree, credit rating, or any previous contracts-he could have an apartment, a car, $2,500 in cash, and prospects for advancement. The result is Shepard's Scratch Beginnings (HarperCollins, 2008)

Q: So you didn't deliberately choose Charleston, S.C.?

No. I put 12 southeastern cities in a hat (Mobile, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, Savannah, Nashville, Columbia, various cities in Virginia, among others), and the idea was that I would pick one out on Monday and hop a train on Tuesday.

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Q: What was your initial experience?

I got anxious very quickly. I didn't have a plan or a route to cover. And I certainly didn't plan on arriving in the dilapidated neighborhood that I did. It was a very naïve experience, and the first chapter shows how grossly unprepared I was.

Q: You lived a long time at Crisis Ministries. Did spending a few months there help most of the folks who lived with you? If not, why not?

I don't know that it helped them as much as it helped me. I wasn't there to have a positive impact on anyone, rather to observe a totally different lifestyle than I was used to, and, as it turned out, I learned so much from a group of guys that didn't represent the ideals of homelessness that I had expected.

Q: What did you discover about the alcoholics and addicts you got to know?

That was a completely new experience for me in that I had never had access to anyone that had an alcohol or a drug problem. So, to see what a serious issue it was, for one, but to also see that some of them wanted help-and got it-while others were simply content with their lives under a cloud of addiction.

Q: What's the weirdest experience you had?

I didn't grow up in a sheltered atmosphere by any means, but I had never seen any hardcore drugs in my life up to the point that I lived in the shelter. We were sitting outside on the stoop and I saw a crack-cocaine deal go down, a very epiphany-like moment for me since I had only seen crack on TV. There were also a few awkward situations inside the shelter where guys were hitting on me and inviting me to sleep next to them. For the most part, though, they were harmless since we all knew that if we acted out of line, we were evicted for three days.

Q: What did you learn about the difficulty of getting and keeping a job, and saving money?

That it wasn't as easy as I had predicted. From the onset, I figured I would arrive in my new town, it might take me a few days to get a job, and then I would have a steady paycheck coming in. Two weeks later, I was unemployed and living in a homeless shelter, wondering if I could actually achieve my goals. In the end, though, I knew that once I had a job, saving money would be the easy part as I sought out ways to budget everyday expenses.

Q: When you had setbacks, how did you get back on track?

That was the ultimate challenge. I broke my toe. I got sick. I got into a vicious fight, and I don't think I got in a single blow. But every time I hit a roadblock, I just figured, "Hell, it could be worse," and that helped me to remember what I was doing in Charleston in the first place, that I had a goal and that nothing was going to get in my way.

Q: What was your bottom line at the end of the year? Did you end up with an apartment, a car, $2,500, and prospects?

Yes, I did. But that's beside the point. It was all about the journey for me. Maybe I succeed, maybe I don't. But to wake up everyday with a mission was far more powerful than any material possessions. More than me succeeding though, I was fortunate to meet guys like Derrick and BG and Omar, who were taking their own shot at the American Dream. To tell their story is far more fascinating than my own.


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