Archive for February, 2009

February 26, 2009

Responsible Exit

I am often asked, “How to street youth get off the street?” There are as many answers to that as there are street youth. However, I have observed some trends. I’ll mention those and then tell a story…

Sometimes the youth repair relationships with a family member or someone close enough to be a foster or surrogate family member. One characteristic–the only characteristic that I am comfortable generalizing–about the homeless is that they lack a support network of any significant type. Typically, a worker like myself is the only adult the street youth has repeat and positive contact with. A repaired family relationship can be brought about because the youth ultimately sees the value of the relationship. Perhaps more often, the repaired relationship occurs because the family or surrogate family member sees how desperately a relationship is needed and forgives or re-accommodates the youth. We should not forget that broken relationships are very often at the heart of homeless issues.

[Restoration or family relationships is not always good, and we cannot jump to the conclusion that we should simply be in the reunification business. I learned that the hard way, but that’s another story.]

Sometimes the youth creates new relationships for themselves. I would estimate that the second most common way off the street is by forging new relationships with a spouse or significant other. Sometimes this involves a new child. I will never suggest having children as a way off the street, and I strongly urge protected sex and abstinence for those under my care, but it is my observation that a newly created life often jars a street youth into having wider vision for their future. I pray that the child will not be involved in cycles of abuse, cycles of poverty, and that the street youth will embody that unwritten commandment that we want to give our children a life better than we had ourselves.

And sometimes, less often in my observation, the youth creates a new life for themselves through schooling or significant on-the-job training. They are finding new friends to surround themselves with. In such scenarios, I have heard the youth remark, “The worst thing I can do for myself, is come back down here and hang on the Drag.” I believe they are building a support network from their new school and/or work friends, and slowly letting loose of their street roots.

So, in summary, the three most often used pathways off the street that I have observed, all involve creation or restoration of relationships.

Now… the story I promised.

A young man named Adam has been around for quite a long time (about 5 years). He had lots going for him and lots of promise coming out of high school, but broken relationships took it away from him. Adam ended up on the street. He learned various businesses common on the street, including several that are illegal. He got busted for them many times, and now has many legal issues and a felony record. Felony records mean you can’t get a lot of government aid, and definitely means that you have a hard time getting work. Adam has plenty of relationships on the street and know how to get by.

Adam recently became a father. I don’t know if this is the first time or not. However, it has really hit him hard. After years on the street, he wants to be the one to raise his child. He wants something better for this child. So Adam has decided to move away with his girl. He has arranged to move to a new, smaller town, and entered a job work program. He and I sat recently to make his resume together as the final act of support from me to him so he can get a job to start making money when he gets to the new place. I do pray that Adam will stick to his responsibilities. I do pray that he will cling to the mother of his child through thick and thin. I do pray that he will form new relationships that are 10 times stronger and more healthy than those that have sustained him over the past years. I do pray that he will heal his broken relationships with society. I do pray that Adam and mother will raise up a child in conditions better than his father had, in a home full of love. And most of all, I do pray that Adam will also repair one other relationship, that between himself and his Maker. Because Adam’s true Father wants to make all these prayers come true.

February 20, 2009


It’s the new buzzword of homeless care. R-E-L-A-T-I-O-N-S-H-I-P. I have heard it in about 6 presentations and talks over the last 3 months. And it’s a good word. Let me share a few sound bites with you, and then a story.

Good is done most often through relationship.

Homeless have a felt need (“what they think they need”), a perceived need (“what we think they need”), and a real need (what they actually need). Most often, we discover the real need by walking with them, talking with them, and getting to know them.

It is difficult to hate those you really know. Can you spot someone to make fun of, ridicule, or fear on a crowd of people you don’t know? (YES) Can you think of any friends who evoke the same feelings (UNLIKELY) It is pretty easy to hate, be disgusted by, shun, or misunderstand people you don’t know.

I often tell people interested in donating to my ministry, that I am not primarily a ministry of relief. I am first and foremost a ministry of daily presence. That means relationship. I am delighted to have things to give away, most especially when it meets a real need, but I make no apologies for not having enough or for running out. It may sound harsh, but I could exhaust myself trying to relieve all suffering and I don’t believe I would meet the real needs. I firmly believe that the real need of homeless street youth is for restored relationships, with themselves, with a loving adult, with family, with society, with God.

And now a story….

I see one particular homeless young man on a regular basis. We’ll call him “Joe.” Joe is angry (with good reason if his descriptions of growing up are anything like accurate). Joe also has some preoccupations with some potentially very destructive ideas. However, Joe is usually receptive to talking, and describes feeling much better and less dangerous to himself afterwards.

Joe is very bright but his history keeps him on the street for now. As we have walked together the last few months, I have gotten to know about him. He has also gotten to know me.

This week, when he saw me, we exchanged the usual greetings and pleasantries. I asked him about how he was feeling and intended to follow-up on some of his compulsive thoughts and tendencies. However, he said, “Wait… before we get into that. How is your [family member].” I told him that my [family member] was not doing very well and having a very hard week. Without hesitation, he gave me a huge hug. This guy, who has all sorts of problems to deal with, was seeing beyond his own need and seeing that his caregiver needed a hug. Now that’s a relationship!

I believe that this is a typical moment for the type of ministry I strive to create. The walk together nourishes both the caregiver and the caretaker. By walking together, everyone is helped to thrive.

[For those concerned, rest assured that the self disclosure is limited and occurs in appropriate moments. Disclosure about my family is even more limited, and my family is safe.]

February 11, 2009

A Fistful of Chocolate

Today someone brought very nice “goodie” bags for the homeless youth. They had lots of pretty wrapped Valentine candy in them. What a wonderful surprise! And it led to this experience…

As I spoke with “Angela”, she voiced anger about someone who was, she felt, competing with in the ability to earn money. Angela started a business distributing advertising. She invited a friend to help her, but her friend is now competing with her and even bringing other people into the area. So now Angela feels she can’t make as much money. This angered her quite a lot!

Later, I sat with Angela with my bag of chocolate. I sort of played with it while we talked. We spoke about many things, including her deep seated struggles with anger. At some point, we were interrupted by “Robert” who was going around trying to gather up much chocolate as he could… much more than he could eat. I offered him two of mine. Both Robert and Angela were suprised that I would give up my chocolate. I took the opportunity to share:

“There are several reasons why I might give someone my chocolates. The first is that I simply don’t want the chocolate very much. Put another way, I want him to have them more than I want them. Another is that there is a basket right over there where I can get more chocolate. There is plenty and I know it! And even if the basket were empty, I’m know people here (pointing at a table with many youth sitting around it) and I could go over there and say, ‘I gave away my chocolate but now I would like one. Would one of you share a chocolate with me?’ I know someone would share.”

Do you see? Angela did see. As the light dawned that she might not need to be angry at her friend, she laughed and said I was tricky to tell her that story. Of course, we can all benefit from the story.

There is no limit to how many smiles you can give away today. There is no quota on compliments you can dish out today. No real limit on love, compassion, prayers, understanding. God has given you a wonderful goodie bag to share, with all sorts of specially crafted gifts. They are not for you alone. They are to be shared.

Thanks for the goodies today. They were an unexpected blesing.

February 6, 2009

What’s in a Craigslist Ad?

I had a “slow” day this past week, although it was more than made up for by the pace of the rest of the week. I saw only 11 youth on this slow day, but my log sheet flowed over the page at 69 different youth by the end of the week.

On this “slow” day, I had the chance to help a couple of young people at the computer. They each were trying to accomplish something by writing ads for the oh-so-popular Craigslist. What would we do without it? This is a tool that homeless people use as well as “normies.” This is actually nice. Craigslist requires that you have internet and an email, both of which are widely available to almost all “normies” and also to homeless through libraries, courtesy internet terminals, and better social service outlets. Once you have these things, everyone is equal. You don’t need a phone, a credit card, or any credentials. Cash and facts are king. Anyway… I digress from my story.

One young person wanted to sell something… something handmade. The other wanted to find a room to rent that fit their meager budget. Both youth are struggling with issues and making progress. They both have one or two very significant issues that are the underlying cause of their homelessness. In addition to these primary causes, years of decline and homeless episodes have left them with countless secondary issues with which to contend.

Both of these two youth had already posted ads on Criaglists. However, I wanted to take the time to help them improve the ads. Neither were very grammatically correct. Regular readers will know I can’t completely help them on that score, but I can help improve it. And both contained significant “errors” in how they presented their propositions.

I was hit hard by how much these two young people had learned to define themselves by their problems. Their ads both contained inappropriate self disclosures about their problems and pasts. Because they have had such a tough time, they were putting their weaknesses and difficulties right out there for all to see. While I applaud their openness, I thought it best to discuss with them that self disclosure might have boundaries on the internet. I wanted them to be honest in their ads, but that putting the best foot forward was a time honored and valuable strategy. With my assistance, both rewrote their ads. Then they posted them on their own.

Since that day, I have been reflecting on my feelings of compassion and empathy for them. How would I feel if I had to define myself by my failures on Craigslist? I imagined possible titles: “Man who got laid off seeking any old job. Please call.” “Jerk who forgot wife’s birthday seeks new living arrangement.” “Man who allowed himself to get ripped off wants to unload his overpriced merchandise on you.”

These young people have many challenges to overcome and live with primary and secondary issues. However, God does not see them in terms of their problems. I know that God sees them in terms of how he made them and how he wants to restore them. Youth need encouragers in their lives, who can help open their imagination to how God sees them. They need positive labels. They need people who say “YES” instead of people who seem to always say “NO,” “NOT now,” and “Maybe someday.”