College graduation is a time to celebrate all one has accomplished. But for many, it can also be a bit fearful. After all, you have gone to school almost your whole life, and now it is time to put your degree to work and find a full time job. 

Some students get right to work while others take a few weeks to decompress, travel and get their mind right before the next chapter of their lives. For one Coeur d’Alene man, however, his post graduate plans include living in his van and chronicling his cross-country journey, all in an effort to open a dialogue about the plight of those less fortunate. 

Justin Doering is a Coeur d’Alene High School graduate and recent graduate of Boise State University where he studied communication and journalism. Instead of seeking traditional work in the newsroom, public relations or advertising field, Doering is setting his own path through something he calls “50 Sandwiches.” 

Doering took off from Coeur d’Alene in early August on a 13,000-mile trip across the country. While stopping in various locations, Doering seeks out local homeless people and shares a sandwich with them in exchange for their story. With a kickstarter campaign that raised more than $10,000, Doering has the funds for the sandwiches as well as fuel for the van in which he lives, sleeps and eats.

Homelessness is an ongoing problem in this country, and its Doering’s mission to hear from those affected and how their circumstances came to be. As a society, when we hear the word “homeless,” we almost always think of the lone male figure in tattered clothes begging for change, food or work on a street corner. The reality is so much broader and the figures so much more shocking than most can believe.

Despite being one of the wealthiest nations in the world, the U.S. census shows that in 2015, 13.5 percent of our country lives at or below the poverty level. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, nearly 560,000 people live on the streets in our country and another seven million are doubled up with friends of family, the most common step prior to homelessness. As evidenced through the first several people Doering has met, it’s a wide range of circumstances that create the environment. 

“I was 17 and the first boy I ever dated hit me. I thought that was normal after that. I thought that’s how you show love. I hated myself. So I got with these guys who would abuse me. I’ve been left for dead. I’ve had my jaw broken,” said 44-year-old Laura in Sacramento whose story Doering has shared on his travel blog. Laura turned to drugs at age 13 and was a lifelong user. She’s been clean for eight months and someday hopes to be a drug counselor to others. 

In Portland, Doering met Richard, a 61-year-old man who was a chef for 50 years and cooked for the likes of Alice Cooper, Dolly Parton and others. His 26-year-old daughter died four years ago when she was being treated for sleep apnea and prescribed two different drugs that didn’t go together. “I haven’t given a (expletive) about anything since then,” said Richard to Doering.

In San Francisco Doering spoke with Dave and Charity, a recently married couple that is hitch hiking their way across the country in hopes of landing in San Luis Obispo. The couples tells Doering that at first they felt free by not having attachments and a mortgage but understand the seriousness of the situation they’ve put themselves in. “After a bit you see how restricting it is. I might not know when my next meal is. I might not know where I’m staying tonight. It’s a constant battle,” said Dave.

Over the coming weeks, Doering will continues his journey across the south, up the east coast and back through the midwest, ultimately landing back in his home state of Idaho. When all the sandwiches have been doled out and the interviews and photographs completed, Doering plans on writing a book about his journey and all the people he has met. A non-profit designation from the IRS means that sales from the book will be redistributed back to homeless shelters and organizations helping the homeless across the country and here at home.

Doering’s goal is ultimately to spread awareness about the homeless issue in our country and that not every situation is the same. There are some who choose this lifestyle, but still others that fall into it through poor upbringing, mental or physical abuse, family tragedy, and substance abuse either by choice or by over-prescribing. Many of us already have our minds made up whether it’s going all in to help in any way we can or the belief that these people have done this to themselves and should have the strength to deal with their own problems. As with any issue and no matter what your belief is, hearing from those who live with this day-to-day will open your mind a little further and might reinforce, adjust, or even flip your beliefs about the issue. You can following Doering’s journey through his Facebook page or website; www.fiftysandwiches.com

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