03/05/1990 at 01:00 AM EST
This may sound like a ridiculous offer," former LIFE assistant managing editor Roy Rowan wrote to PEOPLE assistant managing editor Hal Wingo last December, "but I'd like to take a crack at being homeless for a couple of weeks and keep a diary of what one sees, feels and suffers and how one tries to adapt." When PEOPLE managing editor Landon Jones heard Rowan's proposal, all he could ask was, "Are you sure you really want to do this?" Rowan was more than sure. He was determined. The only other person with whom he had shared his plan was his wife, Helen, who, to his surprise, thought it was a wonderful idea.
Rowan, then 69, began his assignment by investigating the city's various shelters and organizations that deal with approximately 70,000 homeless men and women in New York City. But his goal was to get much closer. "Today America has a crisis that is only being covered from a safe distance," says Rowan. "I wanted to see homelessness through their eyes." In preparation, he stopped shaving, pulled together a ratty wardrobe and took the precaution of getting a gamma globulin shot to ward off hepatitis.
His odyssey began in early January. In shelters, parks and terminals, he came upon a diverse and surprisingly articulate number of men and women with poignant stories of how they had come to such desperate circumstances. Occasionally he worried that one of his four sons might spot him on the streets: Rowan kept the experiment secret from them until his 70th-birthday party, just a few days after his return home.
Crouching in the trenches is familiar turf to Rowan, who joined LIFE in 1948 as a correspondent in China. He covered the fall of Shanghai to the Communists in 1949, the fall of Seoul in 1950 and, as TIME'S Hong Kong bureau chief covering the Vietnam War, was evacuated from Saigon on April 30, 1975—on one of the last helicopters out. He has had his share of close calls, including being ambushed by Communist forces in Malaysia in '48. "That was the most frightening experience of all," he recalls. "But I've always been lucky." As an editor at FORTUNE magazine, he got exclusive interviews with the Hunt brothers during the 1980 silver crisis.
The years of reporting experience paid off in this most unorthodox assignment. "One thing that makes war reporting dramatic and believable is that combat correspondents are in battle, side by side, with the troops," says Rowan. "I'm a storyteller, not a social worker, but I hope my experience will do some good for the homeless.