I went homeless for three days around Christmas. It was an artificial homelessness, because I knew that after 72 hours I could go back to a warm bed and a fridge full of food. But the people I met \u2014 and the misery they experience \u2014 were very real. They were not the lazy alcoholics and drug addicts I\u2019d assumed them to be. They were ordinary people looking desperately for jobs and finding none. Many have kids they call from payphones. All were ashamed of their situation.\r\n\r\nHomeless people are the ultimate endurance athletes and outdoor adventurists, I realized. They hike for miles every day and camp out under the stars each night. They can start a campfire with a single match and a few twigs, and they can forage for food and wild edibles better than most mushroom-gathering hippies. They are thru-hikers without a Katahdin, trudging daily through rain and snow in search of their next meal or job interview.\r\n\r\nI decided to go homeless because I wanted to feel human again. For a few days, I wanted to close the widening gap between rich and poor, suburbanite and street dweller. Wealthy Americans consume over half of the world\u2019s resources, while one billion people starve. Within our own borders, one in 200 Americans sleep on the streets or in shelters each night, and nearly 20 percent of Americans go hungry. Most of them are children.\r\n\r\nFor too long, I\u2019d rationalized away these kinds of statistics: they need to get jobs and make better choices, I figured. It wasn\u2019t until I spent three days on the streets that I realized the hollowness of my rationalizations. These facts have faces. These people are human beings, just like me. Many of them were born into their situation, through no fault of their own.\r\n\r\nThe least I could do was step inside their worn, slip-shod shoes for a few days.\r\n\r\nBeggar at the palace gates\r\n\r\nOn a frosty December morning, I stepped out of my suburban house with absolutely nothing in my stomach or my pockets. I tried hitching a ride into town, but no takers. So I hiked into town. By the time I arrived in Asheville, I was already feeling the first grumbles of hunger.\r\n\r\nBiltmore Village \u2014 a stone\u2019s throw from the Biltmore Estate, the most magnificent mansion in the East \u2014 seemed as good a place as any to beg for money. I found a piece of wet cardboard in a dumpster and borrowed a marker from the drive-thru manager at Arby\u2019s. Then I hastily wrote in blue capital letters: NEED FOOD, WILL WORK.\r\n\r\nFor the next three hours, I stood on the median beside the turn lanes to Biltmore Estate. Scowling motorists filled the far turn lane, sometimes even waiting through an extra light cycle to avoid idling in the turn lane nearest me. They stared at the stoplight, or fiddled with the radio, or talked on their cell phone.\r\n\r\nI avoided eye contact, too. I\u2019d never felt so utterly ashamed and humiliated. I fixed my eyes on a wad of chewing gum stuck to the pavement, while passing drivers threw insults and cigarette butts out the car window: \u201cGet a fucking job!\u201d \u201cFilth!\u201d \u201cCome paint my house, asshole!\u201d Exhaust and hunger were making me dizzy.\r\n\r\nTwo people handed me dollar bills, and one girl poured a fistful of change into my hands. By dusk, I\u2019d scraped up $4.48, an orange slice, and potato chips from \u201cJesus.\u201d Then, as I was about to leave, a woman rolled down her window and handed me a big container of black bean soup she\u2019d bought down the street.\r\n\r\n\u201cThis was going to be my dinner,\u201d she said. \u201cI\u2019ll keep you in my thoughts.\u201d She smiled and drove on.\r\n\r\nAfter devouring potato chips smothered in black beans, I hiked downtown. Outside a laundromat that advertised, \u201cAmerican flags dry-cleaned for free,\u201d a homeless man was carrying a heaping pile of wet clothes and blankets.\r\n\r\n\u201cHey, buddy,\u201d he said to me. \u201cCan you dry these for me?\u201d\r\n\r\n\u201cI don\u2019t have a dryer. I\u2019m homeless, too.\u201d\r\n\r\n\u201cWell shit.\u201d He dropped the damp clothes in the parking lot. \u201cI paid every penny I had to have these things washed, but the manager there wouldn\u2019t dry them for me.\u201d\r\n\r\nI talked for a few minutes to the homeless man, a Vietnam vet who sleeps regularly beneath a bridge on Tunnel Road.\r\n\r\n\u201cPretty patriotic, eh?\u201d he laughed, nodding at the sign. \u201cThey\u2019ll wash flags for free but won\u2019t dry-clean a homeless vet\u2019s blankets.\u201d I handed him one of my crumpled dollars.\r\n\r\nIt was dark. I passed panhandlers and prostitutes beneath an interstate bridge. Down to $3.48, I began planning how I\u2019d spend my money the next day. Three bean burritos at Taco Bell? Breadsticks at Pizza Hut?\r\n\r\nFinally, I curled up on a bench near Pack Place and tried to sleep. I was sniffling and coughing \u2014 the first signs of a cold coming on. Music from downtown bars floated through the night air. Shivering and nearly frozen by midnight, I snuck into the bathroom of a late-night pizza parlor, where I warmed my body and refilled my scavenged plastic soda bottle with tap water. Then I foraged through their dumpster looking for leftover slices. No luck.\r\n\r\nOn the park bench, I huddled into an egg \u2014 pulling my jacket over my knees \u2014 and tried to sleep again. A homeless woman who called herself Sister Marie squatted beside me for a few minutes to chat, and later a dreadlocked derelict woke me hoping to bum a few cigarettes. Then, around 4 a.m., a cop flashed his blue lights, and I hightailed it down the street. For the next few hours, I wandered zombie-like around town, watching newspapermen fill bins and joggers shuffle beneath streetlights.\r\n\r\nHelp not wanted\r\n\r\nLater that morning, I decided to take the advice of passing motorists and Get a Job. I visited over a dozen fast-food restaurants and grocery stores to ask for work. Every one of the conversations went something like this:\r\n\r\n\u201cHi, I\u2019m temporarily homeless and I\u2019m looking for work. I\u2019ll clean toilets, mop floors, haul boxes \u2014 whatever needs to be done.\u201d\r\n\r\n\u201cSorry, pal. We can\u2019t pay you for a few hours work unless we hire you, and we don\u2019t have anything open right now. Plus you\u2019re a liability risk.\u201d\r\n\r\nI was angry and frustrated. But really, who could blame them? Why hire an unshaven homeless guy with body odor? I didn\u2019t even have a permanent address. And managers feared if they helped me, pretty soon I\u2019d start bringing my homeless friends to beg for jobs, harass customers, and hang around the store.\r\n\r\nAround noon, I spent my $3.48 buying a box of Cheerios and a quart of milk from Ingles. I also stole a plastic spoon and styrofoam bowl from the store\u2019s salad bar. After slurping down three bowls of cereal, I kept the leftover Cheerios in my pocket, rationing out a handful per hour.\r\n\r\nJobless and penniless, I hiked back into town. I plopped down near the library and scoured the classifieds of every free newspaper I could find. Reading was a pleasant distraction that kept my mind off food and cold.\r\n\r\nBut as the day wore on, the immediacy of homelessness crept back in. Where would I sleep tonight? Where will I get food? I couldn\u2019t think past my next meal, and it was starting to wear on me. How could I look for jobs when I still needed to find tonight\u2019s food and shelter?\r\n\r\nMy supply of Cheerios was nearly depleted, and rain clouds started to gather overhead. I put down my newspapers and wandered first to the Salvation Army Shelter \u2014 filled \u2014 and then to Asheville-Buncombe Christian Ministry\u2019s Shelter \u2014 closed for the evening. I wiped my nose on my shirtsleeve. Cold rain drizzled down.\r\n\r\nShelter from the storm\r\n\r\nTo stay warm, I walked laps around downtown, passing yuppies in coffee shops sipping lattes and discussing the college bowl championship series. That used to be me, I thought to myself.\r\n\r\nAt 5 p.m., I\u2019d read in one of the free newspapers, a nonprofit was serving free meals to the homeless. I arrived early and waited in line with about 50 other homeless folks. Ahead of me, two guys talked about homeless shelters they\u2019d stayed in while hitchhiking.\r\n\r\n\u201cJuneau, Alaska, has the greatest shelter, man. I show up \u2014 BOOM \u2014 they give me a hot meal that evening, no questions asked. The next day, I go to their employment office \u2014 BOOM \u2014 three job leads, plus tokens for the bus to get around town.\u201d\r\n\r\n\u201cIt ain\u2019t like that here,\u201d the other guy said to Boom-er. \u201cAsheville shelters are overcrowded, and job leads are pretty hard to come by. Shit, I spent all day walking from the mall to the bus station applying for jobs \u2014 and all of them were already filled by the time I got there.\u201d\r\n\r\nI wolfed down three veggie burgers with soy cheese and tofu mayo. When it started raining again \u2014 harder this time \u2014 Boomer\u2019s buddy directed me to another shelter. By the time I arrived, a line stretched all the way around the building. I waited in line behind a middle-aged man wearing a dirty brown suit. He had been laid off two months ago and hadn\u2019t been able to find work. Ahead of him stood a school boy from Honduras, a woman wearing make-up and carrying a Gucci purse, a guy (I think) with long frizzy hair dressed in a tight white Elvis one-piece, and a tubby man with a voice like Fat Albert. This was raw humanity, colorful and diverse \u2014 and desperate.\r\n\r\nWe filed into a makeshift chapel with a lopsided wooden cross, threadbare carpet, and a few folding metal chairs. It smelled like dried vomit. I sat on the floor beside a shaggy-bearded carpenter named Nelson, who had a swollen left hand streaked with red marks.\r\n\r\n\u201cSnake bite,\u201d he explained.\r\n\r\nLast week, while sleeping beside the French Broad, a black watersnake had curled up beside his blanket to stay warm. When Nelson reached for his vodka bottle in the middle of the night, the snake coiled around his arm and bit him.\r\n\r\n\u201cI killed that snake,\u201d he said. \u201cSkinned \u2018em and \u2018ate em too.\u201d\r\n\r\nNelson\u2019s parents had died when he was 16, I learned later. He\u2019d gone to college but couldn\u2019t find a job after graduating. With nowhere to go and no family to help him out, he had been in and out of shelters for the past four years.\r\n\r\n\u201cHere\u2019s my family, right here,\u201d Nelson said, gesturing at the 70 homeless men and women milling around the mission.\r\n\r\nEveryone staying at the mission was required to attend an hour-long chapel service. Nelson muttered through the missionary\u2019s sermon, which was about becoming a follower of Jesus in this \u201cvery special time\u201d of the year.\r\n\r\n\u201cIt sure as hell ain\u2019t special for us,\u201d Nelson mumbled under his breath. \u201cThe only thing we can look forward to around Christmas is more people crowding into shelters to escape the cold weather.\u201d\r\n\r\nAfter the service, women and children were transported to another building to sleep, while the men bedded down on the chapel floor. I was crammed between Fat Albert and a homeless chef named Paul. Both stayed up until 2 a.m. talking over me.\r\n\r\n\u201cMan, there are a helluva lot of drugs in Asheville,\u201d Fat Albert said, shaking his head. \u201cDeals goin\u2019 down in the library, in the Waffle House bathroom. But man, I\u2019m not sellin\u2019 no more. I\u2019ve seen some pretty wicked shit go down lately. I\u2019m done with it. Tryin\u2019 to turn things around, you know.\u201d\r\n\r\n\u201cI hear you, man,\u201d said Paul the chef. \u201cI\u2019ve only been here a few days. You find a job anywhere?\u201d\r\n\r\n\u201cNaw. But they\u2019re hiring at the Days Inn downtown and some hotels out near the mall. I didn\u2019t have no luck there, but maybe you might.\u201d\r\n\r\n\u201cI\u2019ve been looking everywhere, man. Today, I go to Denny\u2019s and say, \u2018Let me cook for one hour. If you don\u2019t like what you see, send me away without pay. Just give me a chance.\u2019 Manager said he already had enough cooks.\u201d\r\n\r\nThen, after a long silence, Paul said, \u201cI\u2019m trying not to get depressed about it all.\u201d Finally he rolled over and stared at the ceiling.\r\n\r\nI couldn\u2019t sleep, either. My head was throbbing, my throat was sore, and every time I lay flat, my sinuses got completely clogged. Sleeping in a windowless room with 70 other sweaty, smelly, snoring men didn\u2019t help, nor did the television blaring in the hall. But at least I was warm and dry. Wind and rain lashed against the building all night.\r\n\r\nIn the morning, the mission provided beat-up boxes of Frosted Flakes and milk past the expiration date. I didn\u2019t care \u2014 it was food, and it was filling. After breakfast, I stumbled groggily out onto the wet streets, hacking up phlegm the whole way home. Cars honked, people stared, parents whispered to their children as I passed. Neighbors glared at the muddy bum trudging along their well-groomed street. These were the same neighbors that used to smile and wave at me on my morning runs.\r\n\r\nI didn\u2019t care anymore. Nothing mattered except making it home. I had no money left, and I was too tired to stand on the corner with a cardboard sign. When it started raining again, I swiped a plastic trash bag from the McDonalds bathroom, poked holes for my head and arms, and wore it like a long smock.\r\n\r\nLater that afternoon, I stumbled home and fell into bed. When I woke up seven hours later, I was still wearing a plastic bag and waterlogged shoes. I looked out the window at blinking Christmas lights, and then closed my eyes again. I counted sheep \u2013 and blessings.