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author Mike Yankoski as a homeless man in Washington, D.C.
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Under the Overpass
Under the Overpass

(Multnomah 2005)

 
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NEW BOOK

Homeless Bound: Author Recounts Months Living ‘Under the Overpass’

By Jeremy Reynalds
Special to ASSIST News Service

CBN.com 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 THE OVERPASS?’

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.’

“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 odyssey.

“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.”

LESSONS LEARNED

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 loved.”

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 to do.”

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.

Assist News Service is brought to you in part by Open Doors USA, a ministry that has served the Suffering Church around the world for nearly 50 years. You can get more information by logging onto their website at www.opendoorsusa.org.

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