Homeless Bound: Author Recounts
Months Living ‘Under the Overpass’
By Jeremy Reynalds
Special to ASSIST News Service
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (ANS) -- It’s
an “adventure” that some people – make that
most – might justifiably call terrifying.
Just a couple of years ago, Christian college student Mike Yankoski
and a friend voluntarily plunged themselves into the unfamiliar
world of homelessness.
In addition to learning more about the often forgotten world of
America’s homeless, the result was a compelling read by
Yankoski titled Under the Overpass (Multnomah 2005).
What did they experience? As a portion of the book’s web
site reads, “After meals from garbage cans and dumpsters,
night after night Mike and Sam found their beds under bridges
and on the streets. They were forced to depend on the generosity
and kindness of strangers as they panhandled to sustain their
existence. For more than five months, the pair experienced firsthand
the extreme pains of hunger, the constant uncertainty and danger
of living on the streets, exhaustion, depression, and social rejection
- and all of this by their own choice. This is their story. Through
Mike's firsthand account, ‘Under the Overpass’ provides
important insight into the truths of the street, and calls the
younger generation of believers to take great risks of faith to
bring Christ's love to the neediest corners of the world.”
HOW DID A CHRISTIAN COLLEGE STUDENT END UP ‘UNDER
How did this all come about? Yankoski explained in an extract
from the book.
“The idea had dropped into my brain one Sunday morning
while I sat in church. The pastor was delivering a powerful sermon
about living the Christian life. The gist of it was, ‘Be
the Christian you say you are.’
“But we were created to be and to do, not merely to discuss.
The hypocrisy in my life troubled me. No, I wasn’t in the
grip of rampant sin, but at the same time, for the life of me
I couldn't find a connecting thread of radical, living obedience
between what I said about my world and how I lived in it. Sure,
I claimed that Christ was my stronghold, my peace, my sustenance,
my joy. But I did all that from the safety of my comfortable upper-middle-class
life. I never really had to put my claims to the test.
“I sat there in church struggling to remember a time when
I'd actually needed to lean fully on Christ rather than on my
own abilities. Not much came to mind. What was Paul's statement
in Philippians? ‘I have learned what it means to be content
in all circumstances, whether with everything or with nothing.’
“The idea came instantly—like the flash of a camera
or a flicker of lightning. It left me breathless, and it changed
my life. What if I stepped out of my comfortable life with nothing
but God and put my faith to the test alongside of those who live
with nothing every day?
“The picture that came with that question was of me homeless
and hungry on the streets of an American city.”
In a recent e-mail interview, I asked Yankoski to tell me how
his family reacted to his idea.
He said, “My family is somewhat used to thinking out loud
about really crazy and different ideas. However, the idea to become
homeless and live on the streets was a little bit too extreme
for them to just pass off. When I explained to my parents the
idea and vision, there was a long silence on the other end of
the phone as they thought about what I had just explained to them.
They weren't too excited about it.”
He added, “The next 16 months were filled with in-depth
research, conversations with rescue mission presidents, and hours
of volunteer work at local shelters. During these months my family
began to embrace and support my idea to become homelessness.”
BEFORE THE OVERPASS
I asked Yankoski to describe the thoughts going through his mind
the last night he spent in his own bed before embarking on his
“My emotions were raging my last night in the quiet and
familiar comfort of my own bed,” he said. “Intertwined
with the excitement that is always present before any venture
begins was a growing sense that I had bitten off far more than
I could chew. Yes I had done research, and lots of it. But research
rarely if ever completely prepares us for a real life experience.
How was a 20-year-old kid from upper-middle class America going
to survive the harsh street life I was diving into? The fear quickly
morphed into sadness as I realized I was leaving all that I cherished
for something utterly foreign.”
However, Yankoski added, “But simultaneously, I felt the
leading hand of the Lord, and the assurance that while the journey
would not be easy, it was what I was called to do.”
I asked Yankoski to tell me both the best and worst parts of
his first night living as a homeless person.
THE FIRST NIGHT
He said, “The best part of actually being homeless the
first night in Washington D.C. was the realization that the months
of planning, prayer, and preparation had actually become a reality.
It was no longer merely an idea, or a desire, or a curiosity to
experience homelessness, but was now actually taking place. (However),
the thrill of the journey was very quickly overpowered by the
humidity, cockroaches and rats. All the months of research in
comfortable libraries and in the offices of rescue mission presidents
truly seemed a world away.”
Yankoski said he and his traveling partner Sam quickly began
to experience a lot of situations that they had never anticipated.
“One of the low points,” he said, “came pretty
quickly in Washington D.C. when we had so little money for food
that we actually dove right on into a dumpster and raided the
remains of someone else's lunch. Not every moment was a struggle,
though. The relationships helped to redeem the monotony and the
harshness of street life. Playing the guitar under a bridge on
a rainy Portland night with a couple of drug addicts while trying
to share the Gospel stands out as a really memorable moment.”
RELATIONSHIPS AND REACTIONS
Knowing that we all have personality “quirks,” I
wondered how Yankoski’s relationship with Sam progressed
during their venture.
He said, “Almost immediately Sam and I began to realize
that human beings are not meant to spend 24 hours a day, 7 days
a week with another person. Early on, the sheer length of time
Sam and I were spending together began to negatively affect our
friendship. However, as the weeks wore on, Sam and I learned how
true the Biblical statement that ‘two are better than one’
really is. For all practical purposes, I was Sam's only friend
on the streets and he was mine. The togetherness of our time on
the streets even helped make the burden of what we were witnessing
day in and day out more manageable.”
Yankoski’s fellow students, he said, reacted with a range
of emotions from “disbelief to shock to energetic support.
Even those who were taken aback by the idea were not trying to
convince me otherwise. Several professors were supportive as was
the campus pastor, although it took a few meetings to convince
them the idea was solid. Within nearly every conversation, though,
there was a sort of distanced interest in the whole endeavor.
Christ calls us to live our faith out loud, and the hunger to
see this done by others and then to do this themselves was a prevalent
in most of my classmates.”
I asked Yankoski what he has learned about the homeless.
He said, “Every human being on the face of the planet is
created in the image of God, and thus we have a responsibility,
a command from Christ Himself in fact, to reach out in love. Homelessness
is one of the most overlooked and forgotten corners of the American
landscape, and yet in doing so we literally ignore some of Christ's
most powerful teachings on loving others as we would want to be
But homelessness is a very complex issue, Yankoski said. “And
thus the question of merely meeting immediate needs versus working
to implement strategies which help draw people out of desolation
is an important question to ask. But regardless of whether the
focus is towards long term life-change or immediate meeting of
needs, it is critical that Christian workers realize that with
every person they interact with they are interacting with Christ
Himself” (c.f. Matt 25).
YANKOSKI AND RESCUE MISSIONS
Having been in rescue mission ministry myself for almost 23 years,
I wondered what Yankoski had learned about missions.
He said, “Most of the missions visited in the cities were
functional, strong places where the legitimate and immediate needs
of street men and women are being met. Yet, the mission world
is a very complicated balance between the needs of the homeless
/ drug addict community and the surrounding local community. Both
from the experience on the streets and the preparatory research,
it became obvious just how essential and necessary missions are
to the downtown areas of our major metropolises.”
I asked Yankoski if he felt that missions are keeping pace with
our rapidly changing culture.
“Some homeless communities are filled with older men and
women who have probably lived in one location for 10-15 years,”
he replied. “The missions who minister to these corners
of society don’t really have to change their model or approach
which they are undertaking simply because their clients aren't
changing. However, in cities where the homeless populations are
younger and more transient, I do believe that many missions are
having a difficult time really engaging this new culture.”
According to Yankoski, if there is one thing that missions improve
it is their “relationship potential.”
He said, “I believe firmly that Christ works through His
people in order to promote and effect change in the world. Many
of the rescue missions which Sam and I encountered during our
time on the streets had very simplistic models of volunteerism
which really left a large gap between the Christian worker and
the homeless addict. An increase in the ‘rubbing of shoulders’
and relationship potential between strong followers of Christ
and the desolate man or woman within faith-based homeless organizations
is key to effectiveness.”
WHAT LIES AHEAD?
Yankoski, who is getting married in a few weeks, said his fiancée’s
“support and excitement about the journey really helped
to strengthen the conviction that this was what I was supposed
Tying his experience of homelessness into his upcoming marriage,
Yankoski said, “Everyone I talk to says that the homeless
journey doesn't even compare to the journey of walking together
with the person you love for the rest of life.”
As to what lies ahead, Yankoski said that once married he and
his new wife will be returning to Southern California where she
has one semester of college yet to complete.
“Beyond that, we are continuing to discern where the Lord
would lead us,” Yankoski said. “Thoughts of serving
overseas are nearly constant, although there is a prominent question
regarding continuing education. (My wife to be) is an English
major and may continue on that route, and I would be honored to
attend a seminary and perhaps begin doctoral work someday.”
Yankoski said, “This season of life is similar to the season
of homelessness two years ago in that both require complete dependence
and trust that the Lord is leading us where He wants us to go,
and that means that despite the circumstantial difficulties or
confusion, we ultimately rest in His mighty hand.”
I unequivocally recommend Yankoski’s book.
Jeremy Reynalds is a freelance writer and the
founder and director of Joy Junction,
New Mexico's largest emergency homeless shelter. He has a master's
degree in communication from the University of New Mexico and
is a candidate for the Ph.D. in intercultural education at Biola
University in Los Angeles. He is married with five children and
lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
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