Homeless: Can you build a life from $25?

In a test of the American Dream, Adam Shepard started life from scratch with the clothes on his back and twenty-five dollars. Ten months later, he had an apartment, a car, and a small savings.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    Self starter: With only $25 in his pocket, Adam Shepard spent 10 months in South Carolina, eventually landing a job, buying a pickup truck, and renting his own apartment.
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Alone on a dark gritty street, Adam Shepard searched for a homeless shelter. He had a gym bag, $25, and little else. A former college athlete with a bachelor's degree, Mr. Shepard had left a comfortable life with supportive parents in Raleigh, N.C. Now he was an outsider on the wrong side of the tracks in Charles­ton, S.C.

But Shepard's descent into poverty in the summer of 2006 was no accident. Shortly after graduating from Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., he intentionally left his parents' home to test the vivacity of the American Dream. His goal: to have a furnished apartment, a car, and $2,500 in savings within a year.

To make his quest even more challenging, he decided not to use any of his previous contacts or mention his education.

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During his first 70 days in Charleston, Shepard lived in a shelter and received food stamps. He also made new friends, finding work as a day laborer, which led to a steady job with a moving company.

Ten months into the experiment, he decided to quit after learning of an illness in his family. But by then he had moved into an apartment, bought a pickup truck, and had saved close to $5,000.

The effort, he says, was inspired after reading "Nickel and Dimed," in which author Barbara Ehrenreich takes on a series of low-paying jobs. Unlike Ms. Ehrenreich, who chronicled the difficulty of advancing beyond the ranks of the working poor, Shepard found he was able to successfully climb out of his self-imposed poverty.

He tells his story in "Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream." The book, he says, is a testament to what ordinary Americans can achieve. On a recent trip to the Boston, he spoke about his experience:

Becoming a mover and living in a homeless shelter – that hadn't been part of your life before. How much did your lifestyle actually change?

Shepard: It changed dramatically. There were simple luxuries that I didn't afford myself. I had to make sacrifices to achieve the goals that I set out. One of those was eating out. I didn't have a cellphone. Especially in this day and age, that was a dramatic change for me.... I was getting by on chicken and Rice-A-Roni dinner and was happy. That's what I learned ... we lived [simply], but still we were happy.

But surely your background – you're privileged; you have an education and a family – made it much easier for you to achieve.

I didn't use my college education, credit history, or contacts [while in South Carolina]. But in real life, I had these lessons that I had learned. I don't think that played to my advantage. How much of a college education do you need to budget your money to a point that you're not spending frivolously, but you're instead putting your money in the bank?

Do you need a college education? I don't think so. To be honest with you, I think I was disadvantaged, because my thinking was inside of a box. I have the way that I lived [in North Carolina] – and to enter into this totally new world and acclimate to a different lifestyle, that was the challenge for me.

Still, there was that safety net. Were you ever tempted to tap your past work, education, or family networks?

I was never tempted. I had a credit card in my back pocket in case of an emergency. The rule was if I used the credit card then, "The project's over, I'm going home."

So what did you tell people when they asked what you were doing?

That was the only touchy part of my story. I had this great back story on how I was escaping my druggy mom and going to live with my alcoholic dad. Things just fell apart, and there I was at the homeless shelter. I really embellished this fabricated story and told it to anyone who would listen.

The interesting thing is that nobody really cared.... It wasn't so much as where we were coming from, it was where we were going.

Would your project have changed if you'd had child-care payments or been required to report to a probation officer? Wouldn't that have made it much harder?

The question isn't whether I would have been able to succeed. I think it's the attitude that I take in: "I've got child care. I've got a probation officer. I've got all these bills. Now what am I going to do? Am I going to continue to go out to eat and put rims on my Cadillac? Or am I going to make some things happen in my life...?" One guy, who arrived [at the shelter] on a Tuesday had been hit by a car on [the previous] Friday by a drunk driver. He was in a wheelchair. He was totally out of it. He was at the shelter. And I said, "Dude, your life is completely changed." And he said, "Yeah, you're right, but I'm getting the heck out of here." Then there was this other guy who could walk and everything was good in his life, but he was just kind of bumming around, begging on the street corner. To see the attitudes along the way, that is what my story is about.

You made it out of the shelter, got a job, and opened a bank account. Did you meet other people who had similar experiences?

Oh, absolutely. We don't need "Scratch Beginnings" to know that millions of Americans are creating a life for themselves from nothing.... Just as millions of Americans are not getting by. There are both ends of the spectrum.

To meet that guy [in the wheelchair] at the shelter, [makes you wonder] 'Can he get out and go to college and become a doctor?' Maybe, maybe not. I think he can set goals..... You can use your talents. That's why, from the beginning, I set very realistic goals: $2,500, a job, car. This isn't a "rags-to-riches million-dollar" story. This is very realistic. I truly believe, based on what I saw at the shelter ...that anyone can do that.

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