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Hitting the Road

For the next seven days, Raleigh graphic designer and NC State alum Will Langley is taking to the streets – literally – to raise the profile of the growing number of unsheltered homeless residents facing daily, harsh realities in the local community.

“For a while now, I have been looking for a way to get involved, needing more fulfillment in my life,” said Langley, a former University Scholar who double-majored in civil and environmental engineering. “At the same time, I’ve started to see more and more people on the streets – because of the foreclosure crisis and the recession, there’s this burgeoning group of newly homeless or under-housed people who, a couple months ago, were doing fine, as far as car payments, mortgages were concerned.

“It just seems that this is an explosive issue, as we’re now seeing even upper-middle class families finding themselves in this really precarious place.”

With just a $20 bill and a single tank of gas, Langley will go “Homeless for the Holidays,” living in his car while lending a hand to local organizations that aid the homeless. He’ll forgo any public assistance as well.

“My plan is to cook $.19 Oodles of Noodles on my backpacking stove every night,” Langley said. “I won’t be panhandling, for the same reason I wouldn’t want to take a bed at a shelter or a hot meal from someone who needs it.

“To cook noodles on the back of my car for a week is not a big deal to me.”

Langley traces this week’s adventure back to his meeting a homeless resident outside a downtown tavern.

“This guy – he’s come up to me before – hit me up for a couple of dollars,” Langley said. “He’s a really nice guy and didn’t smack of addiction – he just seemed like he was sort of a lifetime homeless guy.

“Something struck me about him, so I asked him his name and we sat down, had a beer and talked for about 20 minutes,” he said. “Afterwards, I gave him what I had, but it just really got me thinking how I could help.”

So, he pitched the project to his bosses at Capstrat, a Raleigh-based communications agency. Initially, Langley’s idea centered on an “installation” – a donated car parked downtown – complete with a “Welcome” mat outside the door.

“We wondered how we could make it have more of a genuine impact,” Langley said. “Living in the car was definitely something I was down for.

“It was a collaborative brainstorm, and when we got to the point of me living in my car, I had already decided was going to do it – even if they decided not to participate, because I felt strongly about the idea and thought it could really shed some light on the issue.

Langley double-majored in civil and environmental engineering at NC State.

The agency has set up a both a blog and Web site for the project, where Langley will provide real-time updates via Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, a “Where’s Will?” GPS tracking page and even a live in-car video feed.

In addition to reading his personal reflections, site visitors can get to know some of Raleigh’s homeless residents through video profiles, a pair of which have already been posted. Langley’s advance research, he says, has already helped shatter the stereotype of exactly who makes up the homeless population.

“While it’s very true that depression, PTSD and various forms of addiction are big contributing factors and are rampant throughout the homeless community, it’s an unfair whitewash to think that everyone out there is just a lazy bum,” he said. “I want to find out more about who these people really are.

“Everybody’s got a mom, everyone’s got ideas, opinions, favorite colors and those kinds of things,” he said. “I really hope to dispel the myths and stereotypes that are so prevalent and help humanize the people I’m talking to and share their individual stories.”

In fact, he’s already struck up a number of conversations with homeless people across the nation – on Twitter, of all places.

“I’ve encountered this crazy phenomenon, and just I find it amazing,” Langley said. “They go to their public libraries and log on.

“Loneliness, from what I’m hearing, is the worst thing,” he said. “Having all that time to yourself with no one to talk to, they are finding each other online, and pursuing different avenues for help through Twitter and social media at large.

“I had absolutely no idea that was going on.”

Twitter aside, there’s nothing like genuine, one-on-one interaction to satisfy a person’s longing for community, Langley said. That’s the message he hopes people will take away from his journey into an unfamiliar world.

Langley is not personally soliciting for any donations – although there are links to several organizations on his Web site – but simply for people to get to know those less fortunate around them.

“It just comes down to interacting with those who have been left out in the cold,” Langley said. “Whether or not you decide to give money, food, cigarettes or whatever else someone is asking for, before you leave, just shake their hand and ask them what their name is, even if you tell them no on everything else.

“This project, even as it’s just beginning, has already changed me,” he said. “I’ll never again be able to spend a Thanksgiving or Christmas not helping people.