Memoir tracks 23-year-old college grad's journey with $25, a mission

Adam Shepard arrived in Charleston with $25, a sleeping bag and a mission — to prove the American dream is alive.

The 23-year-old from Raleigh gave himself a year to overcome homelessness, buy an operable car and save $2,500.

The experiment was designed to counter the 2001 nonfiction book "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" by Barbara Ehrenreich.

"The way she took this victim-mentality tone, that got to me," Shepard said in a phone interview. "I read it six times and formulated an idea against it."

In her book, Ehrenreich tells how she set out with $1,300 for her first month's rent and start-up costs before eking out a living with a series of minimum-wage jobs. Shepard set himself a harder challenge, he said, starting homeless and nearly broke.

He did not use his college education, credit history or contacts to advance his situation, he said. The only advantage he admitted was an upbringing that instilled a sense of discipline. "I certainly realize many people are not as fortunate as I am to get that discipline from their parents," he said.

Shepard tells his story in the self-published memoir "Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream." His odyssey begins with pulling a slip of paper marked "Charleston" out of a hat containing the names of a dozen southeastern cities.

On a July evening in 2006, he stepped off a train, inquired where the homeless shelter was and started walking the eight miles down Rivers Avenue to Crisis Ministries in downtown Charleston. He found work through a day-labor agency doing everything from landscaping to working in a shop hanging baby clothes.

Among those he counted as friends were his co-workers at Two Men and a Truck in North Charleston. Wendy Jones, who books the moves, said, "He's got a brain on him that will blow you out of the water. I've never met anyone like him before."

He also met people he could not understand. One of those people turned out to be his roommate, who would take off with his truck for hours at a time.

Shepard drove out of town in May in his 1988 GMC Sierra, a screwdriver in the ignition, with his bootstrap philosophy intact and a little more compassion for people who, as he writes, "made poor decisions."

The "no-fault" attitude of some he met vexed him. "Unfortunately, few of us take ownership of our lives," he writes in the epilogue. Those who took control, like a fellow mover who saved his money and bought a house, shined brightly for Shepard.

"It was a lot more real than a college education," he said. "My dad went to Vietnam. My brother's in Iraq. I certainly learned a lot that pertains to life."