Most of us occasionally think about the homeless and wonder what it would be like to trade places with them. Mike Yankoski was a freshman at Westmont College in California when he and a friend named Sam decided to live on the streets in major American cities over five months in 2003. Yankoski tells what happened in his new book, Under the Overpass: A Journey of Faith on the Streets of America, published earlier this month by Multnomah. Stan Guthrie interviewed him.
Why did you do this?
I felt the Lord’s calling toward the streets. “What would it look like to become homeless?” I wondered. “Is my faith strong enough? Is God big enough to be trusted, even on the streets, away from everything I’ve ever known?” I felt the call to lay everything down and follow the Lord into a desolate place. Another question urged me forward: “How would I be treated by the Body of Christ [Christians]?” Would I be shunned and forgotten simply because of how I looked? The call and the burning questions drew me into the five-month homeless journey that Sam and I had.
How did your parents react? Did they think you had gone off the deep end?
Definitely. When I told them on the phone about the crazy idea, they were both speechless for quite a while. Then, their answer was a slow and calculated: “We’ll have to talk about it later.” They were concerned for my safety, of course, and also wondered, I think, how anything beneficial could be gained by living on the streets. In due time, though, through the excitement and encouragement of the many people who surrounded and encouraged the idea, they became confident that the homeless journey was supposed to happen.
Where did you go?
Sam and I spent just a little longer than five months on the streets of six major American cities: Denver, Washington, D.C., Portland, San Francisco, Phoenix, and San Diego. In those cities, we lived as homeless as we knew how, sleeping under bridges or in shelters, eating from garbage cans or panhandling to buy a sandwich, going long weeks without a shower or clean clothes. We looked disgusting, smelled disgusting, and were disgusting.
How did people treat you as a homeless person? I’m guessing it was worse than as a student at Westmont.
Quite a bit differently, actually. It was really hard to be ignored and forgotten by nearly everyone who passed us by, every moment of every day. Families would walk past us and the only people who would acknowledge that we were alive were the kids who didn’t know any better. Hours of panhandling were rewarded with only a few cents on more than one occasion. We were feared and avoided as we walked down the street, people parting and swerving far ahead of us in order to avoid contact. Even churches turned us away, stating that it wasn’t their “job” to provide for our needs. But in the midst of that hurt and disappointment, there were experiences with phenomenal Christians who took Christ at his word, and helped us in very real, tangible ways.
Was your life ever at risk?
That’s sort of hard to say. On the one hand, nearly every day it was at risk because we were hanging out with and sleeping next to convicted felons and just about every kind of person that you’re warned as a kid to not go near. There was one evening in San Francisco when three very large men were talking about jumping us and pounding us to see if we had any pot, but the attack was prevented by a medicine man who earlier had asked us for a piece of our hair for his medicine kit. So I think the general answer is Yes, but at the same time the Lord provided for our protection, safety, and sustenance in amazing ways. Even though we were hungry, tired, dirty, depressed, shamed, and forgotten in the midst of felons and violence, we survived. We were sustained, and carried through the rough spots.
What did you learn about God, and about yourself?
The lessons were numerous. Some of the most notable are centered around trust. I grew up in a home where I [rarely] lacked anything. If I was hungry, I went to the refrigerator. If I was dirty, I took a shower and put on clean clothes. Quite a bit different from life on the streets. On the sidewalk, where panhandling was the only way to get a decent meal, or standing in line for two-plus hours to get dinner from the rescue mission, trust meant something different. When I prayed “Lord, thank you for this food,” the words now dripped with honesty and intensity whereas before they were simply by rote. Sleeping out in the open, under a bridge, unsure of what might come during the night, required an absolute abandon to the will of the Lord. If he wanted me to wake up the next morning, I would. If he didn’t, I wouldn’t. And there was nothing that could stop that. From these in-your-face lessons about trust, there came an amazing sensation of peace. The Lord really is worthy of all our trust.
The personal lessons were intense, as well. Living with another human being 24 hours a day, seven days a week for as many months as Sam and I did was nearly a disaster. I learned time and again how prideful I am and how selfish even my best intentions really are. But in the midst of those failures, there was an incredible realization of what it means to bear one another’s burdens, and love unconditionally—both of which, I might add, were possible only after a lot of prayer and reading of Scripture.
Was it hard to reintegrate yourself into American society?
Yes. Coming home was quite difficult. It was such a transition to go from poverty on the streets to opulence back home. Almost immediately this difference between worlds was shoved in my face.
The night we left the streets of San Diego, we stayed with a friend in his Los Angeles apartment. I took a long shower and climbed into my own bed in my own room. Even though the sheets were fresh and I was finally clean, I couldn’t fall asleep. The room was silent, and I felt alone. Where there had been stars above now there was a confining ceiling. The sound of traffic had given way to the quiet hum of the air conditioning unit.
The whole world had changed.
Even though I knew it was coming, I still wasn’t prepared for the shock of coming back into “normal” life. It was hard to remember that I didn’t have to go hungry during the days, that I could afford to eat, that I could shower and change clothes when I was dirty. It sounds strange, but it really did take a couple of months before the general events of life became normal again.
Next week: Part 2