Instead of getting a job right after college, Justin Doering decided he first wanted to do something else.
So the 22-year-old Coeur d’Alene man raised $10,000 on Kickstarter to spend more than three months traveling the United States to interview homeless people and share their stories.
The result is a website called Fifty Sandwiches, so named because Doering’s goal was to buy a sandwich for each homeless person he interviewed and share photos and tidbits from his interviews, all with the goal of dispelling stereotypes.
“You see them getting ignored on the street all the time. It’s natural to turn a blind eye to them,” he said.
Doering has been interested in homelessness for a long time, though he said there was no defining moment or particular reason he started looking into the issue. At Coeur d’Alene High School, he wrote his senior paper on misrepresentations about the homeless in the media and among people. Many believe that being homeless is a choice, he said, or that all homeless people are addicted to drugs or have mental health issues.
On the road, Doering did find a few people who had chosen to live without housing, usually as part of a minimalist approach to life. But by and large, the stories he shares seem the sort that could happen to most people: medical debt spiraling into losing an apartment, or running away from an alcoholic stepdad.
Several of the people he spoke to are veterans. One shares his full name with President John F. Kennedy. Some are teenagers, while others are old enough to collect Social Security.
Alcohol and drug use came up in some of Doering’s interviews, as did mental illness. But even when one of those issues contributed to someone being homeless, it was usually “just a tiny sliver of their story,” Doering said. Abuse or injury often preceded addiction, for instance.
The trip took Doering to 34 states between August and November last year. He started in Seattle, then drove down the California coast before heading east to Florida. He bought a 1990 GMC van for $1,400, named it Milo and slept on a pad in the back, often in Walmart parking lots. Milo was totaled in Cleveland, so he ended up buying a second van there.
In cities that were well-known for providing good services for homeless people, like Portland, Doering found migrants from all over the country.
“A lot of homeless people come to cities where there’s more opportunities,” he said.
Doering said he’s heard some criticism of the project from people concerned he’s exploiting homeless peoples’ stories for his personal gain. Asked whether the $10,000 he spent on the trip could have done more good donated to a local organization, Doering said he didn’t think so.
“The first step to solving a problem is understanding it,” he said. “This could really do a lot to help.” Many of the people he spoke with ended interviews by hugging him, and a few have kept in touch and asked for updates on the project.
Doering graduated from Boise State University in 2015 with a journalism degree. He’s hoping to publish a book with expanded interviews for each person he spoke with and would like to donate proceeds to an organization serving homeless people.
On his travels, he worked with Miracle Messages, an organization that tries to reconnect homeless people with lost loved ones. Many of his interviews focus on the person’s life philosophies, goals or personal history.
“There’s more to homelessness than just being homeless,” he said.
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