This is Carolina: Man shines light on homeless population by living among them

This is Carolina: Man shines light on homeless population by living among them

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - A tragic accident inspired one man to drop everything and makeover a van to live in and travel the country.

Although he's enjoying each city he visits, Jason Smith is traveling in a way most of us wouldn't dream of.

After driving over 5,500 miles, Smith just arrived in Myrtle Beach.

From Phoenix to El Paso, Houston, New Orleans, Nashville, Atlanta and down to Naples, Florida and back up to Myrtle Beach, Smith has seen a lot while traveling in his green van as a homeless man.

He's been on the road since April 1, and said he plans to travel for about four-and-a-half more months to complete his six-month adventure.

Smith, a former paramedic in Arizona, isn't traveling just for fun. He said he's doing it because he's inspired.

"Well, a couple years ago I was working on an ambulance and I was in just a horrific ambulance crash. From that accident I knew that it was time to just start living my life now, and just chase after something that's a little bit bigger than me," Smith said while sitting in his van at the Walmart on Seaboard Street.

Smith said he had neck injuries, and others were also hurt in the accident.

About a year ago, Smith said he started planning for his life as a homeless man in the van. Many of his patients while he was a paramedic were homeless, he explained.

Smith used his settlement check from the accident to buy and refurbish the van.

"I've always wanted to understand, what is it like to be homeless? Because you run into these people each and every day, and you see the issues that they're going through and I think in order to understand what it's like you have to step out of your shoes and step into theirs," he said.

Smith said he lives only off the kindness of others he meets along his journey. His bank account funds are off limits to use during his six-month journey. He trusts passers-by to fill up his gas can, and spare cash for food when they can. He panhandles. He sleeps in parking lots and truck stops in his van.

Surprisingly at times, Smith said he makes more money an hour panhandling than he did as a professional paramedic. However, it varies on the city and time of day, he added.

Many cities also have passed ordinances to make panhandling illegal, he found.

Spare money has been used to buy tents to give out to homeless people he meets. Smith plans to distribute some in the Myrtle Beach area later next week before his next stop.

"Most people say, 'Hey, God bless, take care, get what you need and help others when you have a chance,'" Smith said of people's remarks when they give him money.

He said straightforward signs seem to work better than witty ones and people in Texas have been the most generous. Smith claims he was attacked for panhandling on another homeless man's stoop in Albuquerque, but met an inspiring woman in Austin.

With the big cities and many homeless people, Florida has been the most difficult.

Smith travels with his brother, Zane, who is his camera man and "security." Their van is decked out with necessities only, including a pull-out cooker underneath the bed.

Smith said he thinks society puts a 'band-aid' on the homeless problem, and long-term resolutions aren't available.  He's hoping his project and, one day, his documentary based on footage from the project will help inspire new ideas to solve society's ills.

Many ideas and essential parts of the project are the people who Smith encounters and meets in each city.  In Myrtle Beach, while having lunch at the Community Kitchen, he met Phillip.

"Every time I come back it's the same folks, and they're always serving, always smiling. They're always kind to every person that comes through here and there's some pretty interesting folks that come through here," Phillip said.

Phillip eats at the Community Kitchen often, and has had a nomadic lifestyle in his 50 years of living. During that time, he's seen a lot of kindness and hospitality that's kept him going.

The Smith brothers don't plan on being nomads forever. They do, however, plan to spend their last four months driving up the East Coast and back to Arizona.  Jason Smith said they'll get up to Maine and are still figuring out their trip back down.

Smith said he'll keep recording his stories and hopes to make a difference one day. If you're interested in his van adventures, click here to learn more about the project and how you can help.

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