When it comes to helping the homeless, some people volunteer in a soup kitchen or send a check to a local charity.
But Darius White '12, who hopes to one day own and operate a homeless shelter, took his involvement much further: He chose to spend five cold March days and nights living on the streets of Indianapolis to teach others -- and himself -- what it's like to actually be there.
“I think the way to understand a problem is to live it," White said. "I wanted to get awareness out on just how serious homelessness is, even in our own communities. Participating in this project makes me feel closer to accomplishing my dream."
The resulting Humble Homeless Project was part of an independent study for White, who graduated in May with a double major (family services and consumer sciences, with a minor in business administration).
"I just really felt I should actively experience it instead of looking it up, finding statistics and writing a paper."
To share his observations, he started a blog, where readers can follow along on his tiring and dangerous experience.
He carried $20 and a pocket knife, as well as a backpack with some basic essentials. For documentation purposes, he took a tablet computer, camera, notebook and pens. He took no change of clothes. At the last minute, he abandoned his plan to drive to Indianapolis, deciding instead to take a train so he wouldn't have his car available as a "crutch."
His first night was "unbelievably cold," but for the rest of the project, he was fortunate to secure a bed in the 160-person-capacity male section of a missionary homeless shelter near Monument Circle. The highly regimented schedule gave the shelter a prison-like feel, he said. Those who missed afternoon check-in lost their spots for the night; lights-out was at 9 p.m.; and after the 5 a.m. wake-up call, the sleeping area was closed for the day.
The shelter required occupants to participate in a Bible study or chapel, but provided no developmental training.
"If I'm blessed to one day own and manage a homeless shelter, I would love to offer workshops throughout the day that help develop leadership, professional skills and personal development," White wrote in his blog. "Not only do I want to assist them with finding shelter and employment, but also provide them with the knowledge to maintain a positive lifestyle."
White learned the social protocol of joining the ranks of the homeless. He also learned the dangers.
One afternoon, as he took a shortcut through an alley to get to the shelter, he was attacked by two homeless men. One hit him in the back of the head, and the other tried to grab his backpack. One of the assailants wielded a steak knife, prompting White to pull out his pocket knife. That's when two other homeless men, including one White had befriended at the shelter, happened upon the scene and scared the offenders away.
"It only lasted 10 seconds but it seemed like it lasted several minutes,” White wrote.
It would have been enough to send some people back to the train station for a ride home. Not White.
"I will still take that as a positive experience, because I know that's just a daily experience that homeless people have to go through," White said. "I just had to experience it for myself. It was scary, it was shocking, but it was still beneficial at the end of the day."
Despite the negativity he encountered, White also saw rays of hope. Some of the men were working temporary jobs, earning up to $40 per day, though it can be difficult to maneuver a job schedule around the shelters' check-in times.
And while so many homeless people lack what most Americans would consider necessities, White found that many of them expressed feelings of gratitude for what they did have.
"I have seen men in here pray more than four times a day, thanking him (God) for at least putting them under the roof of a homeless shelter rather than having to sleep on the streets," White wrote.
White has that same feeling of gratitude for the opportunities he's had to not only further educate himself on the plight of the homeless, but also to educate the public.
"Every time I noticed a (blog) comment or the number of page views rose, I got excited just knowing that I was able to provide someone with insight on the issue of homelessness. The Humble Homeless Project will definitely not stop here," White wrote, adding that it has "developed into a life mission."
In fact, White's goal is to experience homelessness in all 50 states. Next up are Kentucky and Tennessee.
In the midst of that planning, the new graduate is looking for a job in higher education, where he can reach out to another set of people who sometimes need assistance: college students.
White takes with him an impressive resume showing extensive campus involvement in a variety of campus organizations, including University Board (the past year as chair), Black Student Union executive board, Black Student Reunion Committee and Alpha Phi Alpha (which he serves as president). He also has worked three campus jobs simultaneously, not counting his summer tour guide gig and two internships this past semester.
"I've gained useful skills in event planning and leadership development," White said.
Ultimately, he wants to use those skills to get the word out that homelessness is not a problem to be ignored, and that it can hit closer to home than anyone wants to consider.
"Even for those with college degrees, there's still a chance of us becoming homeless," White said. "Literally, some of us live one paycheck away from being homeless."
Humble Homeless Project blog