Eight Florida State University students started their spring break in Washington rolling around in the dirt to soil their jackets and jeans or streaking their faces with coffee grounds. They packed toilet paper into bedrolls of sheets and blankets (not enough to keep them warm, they discovered later). They pulled knit caps over their ears, donned gloves and emptied pockets of everything except $1 in change and a photo ID.
Their marching orders: Don't trust anybody; don't smile too much; don't talk a lot. They were going down and out in D.C., to live like the homeless for 48 hours.
"I don't expect it to be so hard," said Luke Martin, an 18-year-old freshman. "If it's so hard, why are people content doing it? If they wanted, they could find a hardworking job and get out of it."
He was about to find out.
The students were on the American Urban Plunge, the equivalent of Homelessness 101.They gave up a traditional spring break at the beach or on the slopes last week to participate in a community service program promoted by the Tallahassee-based organization Break Away.
Two homeless men -- one who created his own Web site and another whose haunting poems got him into a George Washington University class -- were their guides, the streets their teacher. The plan was to see homelessness from the inside, from dumpster diving to sleeping on streets.
Just as important, the plunge organizers explained, was for the students to realize that many homeless men and women aren't much different from them. They have feelings and dreams. And many have surprising talents. What they lack, organizers said, are economic, social and family support systems crucial to help overcome adversity or alcohol or drug addiction or manage mental illness. Meredith Stewart, the coordinator of the speaker's bureau of the National Coalition for the Homeless, explained all this before the plunge.
"The thing is not to think of them as devoid of humanity," she said. "We hope that in the future, instead of just walking by people, you recognize them and that you don't treat them rudely, because you're going to be in that same position."
And they were.
"The people our age, about 25 years old or like college students, are suburban snots," said Carey Bartley, a 21-year-old junior who got about $11 panhandling her first day from what she called the "the lower-class people . . . the people you could least expect it from." The others, the "disappointments," she called them, "walk by in their nice little wool jacket and boots and just keep going. They were just too hot to be bothered."
Thousands of Americans have experienced a plunge, a concept George Orwell wrote about in his 1933 classic, "Down and Out in Paris and London." It was popularized in the 1960s during the War on Poverty, when clergy started plunges to familiarize congregations with the plight of the poor. Volunteers in Service to America included the plunge in its training program.
In Washington, the plunge started in 1984 with the creation of the National Coalition for the Homeless. This year, the coalition added two elements to the program: community service -- preparing food in a soup kitchen or tutoring children -- and direct advocacy, or lobbying Congress to fund more affordable housing and to create jobs and broader health care for the poor.
But the trip to Capitol Hill came Thursday afternoon, only after the students showered, washed their hair and put on clean clothes. First, they were "homeless" for 48 hours -- almost -- but knew they would return to comfortable lives and warm beds. "You have a place to go to, so you have hope," Stewart told them. "The people out there don't have that. Think about that and think about the despair of being homeless."
They slept fitfully atop cardboard and blankets outside the front entrances to a public library and an office building near McPherson Square. Their assignment was to wander downtown aimlessly, use public bathrooms, panhandle, linger in public spaces such as a museum or library, scavenge leftover scraps at restaurants, eat in soup kitchens and talk to as many homeless people as they could.
They had mixed results getting into public bathrooms, and pre-med student Brett Lewellyn, 31, had no luck panhandling. His sign -- "Will Tell You How Attractive You Are For $$$ God Bless" -- got him chuckles and a request from an amused woman to take his picture. But he made zero.
The three young women -- who looked like young waifs lost in the big city -- had more luck.
"I made $5 and got two cheeseburgers in less than an hour," said Cristin Hendrickson, a 20-year-old sophomore, a day after she made about $15 and received a sandwich, pretzels and a bottle of water from a stranger.
One woman told Ryan Cox, a 23-year-old senior, that she wouldn't give her money but would buy her lunch -- a double cheeseburger, french fries, two baked apple pies and three cookies. And Bartley went up to a food cart vendor, said she was hungry and had no money, and was offered a hot dog with a choice of any topping.
The abundance of food was almost overwhelming. There are numerous breakfast and dinner soup kitchens, and every day, a wagon drops off soup and sandwiches at McPherson Square. Restaurants, banquet halls, high school brigades, out-of-town youth groups and an order of nuns also deliver food almost daily to the same park.
On Tuesday night, Cox, Martin and Travis Snyder, a 23-year-old senior, were awakened by a Domino's Pizza employee who they learned often delivers a free fresh, hot pizza to the homeless men who sleep outside a building on H Street NW. And Thursday morning, Eric Powell, a 20-year-old junior, and some of the others woke up outside the public library to find a box containing orange juice, Fig Newtons and apples. "When I do community service, I often think, does it make a difference?" Powell said. "I tell you, I was really happy to see that little continental breakfast when I woke up. It made a difference."
But walking around to while away the day got old. "It's hard just being here," said Mario Jean-Rejouis, an 18-year-old freshman. "I used to wish we had more hours in a day. Now I wish we had less, to go by faster."
They called the District's hypothermia hotline and waited a half-hour for blankets as the nighttime temperature slid into the low 30s. The homeless offered survival tips, and soup kitchen personnel referred them to shelters and temporary jobs. "There is so much love in this city, it's almost too much," Snyder said. "I felt guilty."
What was hard for them to conclude was how to solve the seemingly intractable problem of homelessness. Some felt the system of free food and shelters keeps the homeless comfortable and unmotivated. Others thought services need to be personalized to help get people off the streets -- "to push them over the edge," as one student said. Others thought the answer was more affordable housing , more jobs, better wages.
The National Coalition for the Homeless has its own policy and legislative agenda, but Michael Stoops, the director of community organizing and of the plunges, said, "We don't have all the answers to everything, either."
What the coalition hopes, he said, is that students like those from Florida State "become leaders in their communities and decide to work in social justice issues someday."
Perhaps some will.
"I find it somewhat unrealistic to believe that the problem actually has a solution," Powell wrote in his journal. "I mean, let's face it, to rationalize the existence of homelessness is a pretty simple task. But then I begin to think higher, to think about the what-ifs. A statue of Martin Luther King Jr. dares me to dream and work towards the impossible.
"Surely there was a time when an integrated society seemed impossible. But numerous times on this trip, and indeed every day, I find myself sitting, working and [conversing] with blacks fully realizing the dream of Dr. King . . . a dream which once seemed impossible."