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 Yankoski. Part 1 appeared last week.
What is the scope of the homeless problem in the United States?
Larger than it should be. There are actually varying reports on how many homeless people there are in the United States. It ranges from 200,000 to upwards of 3 million. The age and demographics of the homeless vary depending on where you are. For example, in Washington D.C., the majority of the homeless are war veterans, African American, and over the age of 40. Whereas in Portland, most of the homeless are Caucasian and under the age of 25.
The reason it is so difficult to get an accurate statistical idea of the American homeless population is because often street people so are transient, moving from location to location, warehouse to warehouse, cheap motel to cheap motel, that it is impossible to do any sort of controlled study.
Regardless of the numbers, I really do believe that the problem of homelessness is a major blot on the conscience of the American way of life, and especially on the church. We as Christians are called to care for the orphans and the widows, those who cannot fend for themselves. I don’t care whether it is drug addiction or mental instability that leaves a person lying face down in the gutter, Christ has commanded us to love. Tangibly. There simply isn’t enough of that going on, and the homeless landscape is evidence of that fact.
Aren’t most people homeless because they have a problem with substance abuse or with mental illness?
Yes. A large majority of the homeless population suffer from some sort of alcoholism or drug addiction, or else are mentally unable to cope with normal societal life. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between the two, as long-term drug addiction does make the human brain go haywire. To say that substance abuse or mental illness is the cause of their homelessness is a little tricky, though, because the causes are as individual as the people themselves. It’s not just a cookie-cutter pattern: started drinking, started drinking a lot, ended up on the streets, but often includes deeply ingrained family patterns, abuse, depression, and a variety of other factors.
These issues, however, no matter how grotesque or hard to look at, are by no means a reason to push these men and women aside. Christ came, after all, not for the healthy but for the sick. Something central in our understanding of Christ is skewed when we push the sick out of our churches, out of our communities, and out of our lives.
What do we need to do differently to help the homeless?
Be involved. There are so many different ways to have a tangible effect on homelessness. There are rescue missions and shelters around the country in nearly every major city that need people with a passion and a heart to volunteer. Most agencies serve two to three meals per day. By volunteering to serve a meal, you get the opportunity to meet a person’s need and then also have the context for conversation and friendship. In addition to this, some communities have counseling programs that need mentors willing to dedicate one to two hours per week to meet with people and work with them as they find their way through their problems, addictions, or depression.
Additionally, in a more dynamic fashion, each of us must be more willing to give, both of our resources and our time, even to the people we think don’t deserve it—perhaps most importantly to the people we think don’t deserve it. Grace isn’t earned, right? Be open to buying homeless people lunch—smelly, dirty, scary as they may be. If you feel led, sit with them as they eat their burrito or cheeseburger and listen a little to their story.
How has this experience changed you?
Some changes were more immediately noticeable after the return from the streets. Others, however, have been slower to surface. Most noticeably, though, there is a strong connection with street people that I don’t think will ever leave. It’s much easier now to walk up to a group of homeless people and start a conversation, find out where they’re staying, let them know about the local rescue mission, and so on. Before the months on the street, I was much more intimidated and unwilling to approach a group of street people.
Although I sometimes drown out its effect, one of the largest impacts the five-month homeless journey had on me was making me realize how disconnected life is from possessions and materialism. Sam and I were exactly the same men, with the same faith in the Lord, the same history, the same hopes and dreams on the streets that we are in “normal” life. The circumstances and context don’t make the person. In many ways, this has allowed a new perception of myself and of the people that I encounter every day. Thus, I find a real desire to find out who they really are despite whatever they may appear to be.
Would you recommend that others do this kind of thing?
Not really, no. I actually have given this quite a bit of thought. I believe that God called Sam and me to the five-month journey that we experienced. And thus I think those months were a rare circumstance in which we were protected only because we were called to it. So, if the Lord is calling someone to a similar experience, then, yes, I recommend it. But if it just “seems like a good idea,” then I highly discourage it. The circumstances that Sam and I found ourselves in could so quickly have turned bad. Whether from violence, sickness, accident, or who knows what, we were often in harm’s way. It really is a miracle that we came back unscathed.
There are other, more appropriate ways to connect with the homeless population of America, like in a local rescue mission or shelter, on a dynamic basis when you see someone downtown with your family, and so on.