Archive for March, 2009

March 28, 2009

Plain Talk


I am often asked what do I do when I’m on the street. I have been keeping track of my activities for the last couple of months so I could better answer that.

In a typical week during the winter (our “busy” season), I spoke with between 60 and 70 people in a week. While my target is on young people in the 17 to 27 age range, this number includes all homeless people I meet. However, about 90% of it is in the target range. And every week I meet between 10 and 15 new people. So that means in the last 3 months of winter (13 weeks) I have met and spoke with between 190 and 250 people! That might seem like a lot, but you have to remember that Austin data conservatively shows there to be between 900 and 1000 homeless people not in shelters under the age of 25.

I speak with a person an average of twice a week. So I’ve had the privilege of about 500 conversations in the last 3 months.

Now what does “speak with” mean. What’s in a conversation with Street Youth Ministry? I don’t want to mislead you and think that I have a 30 minute in depth session with each person, but I do have that with some. To further think about my ministry and what I do, I have divided my conversations into types: introduction, follow-up, witness, discipleship, counselling, and employment. I actually see far more than the number I count, but if I don’t at least have one of these types of conversations, I don’t include it in the count.

The first time I meet someone, it’s an introduction. I typically just meet them, focus on learning their name and something that will help me remember their name. Often I learn their dog’s name because the pair is easier to remember than just the one name alone. I try to find out where they are from and where they are travelling from most recently. I try to find out if they are staying for a while or just passing through.

The subsequent times I meet them, it’s typically a follow-up. Follow-up can be quick and is by far the most common type of conversation. I recall their name (or get help so I can remember it better next time). Then I ask how they are. Then I go into follow-up by guiding the conversation around to whatever they said was going on with them last time. For example, if they had lost their ID last time, I ask how it’s going in terms of planning to get a new one and in terms of problems caused by that. If possible, I try to guide them to forming a simple next step in their plan or process. This includes things like drinking, drugs, needing clothing, a job, emotional issues, relationship issues, etc.

When a person is truly working on something and I can make space and time to work with them, I call this counselling. This is typically 10 to 30 minutes in duration. In that time, I used techniques like harm reduction, the change model, and strengths based conversation to help them work toward a plan of their own to improve or better deal with some aspect of their life. It can be reduction of drinking, reduction of drug use, reduction of violent behavior, having safer sex. It can be figuring out their resources that are relevant to getting things they needs like clothing, medical care, dental care, food, transportation, ID. Sometimes it working specifically toward employment. I do this often enough that I consider that a special category. If I work on resumes, job interests, practice interviewing, or sources of jobs with folks, I call that an employment conversation.

Occasionally, a youth presents in crisis. The working definition for crisis that I use is the state where a person cannot form plans of their own. Solutions that are in their head are simply not accessible to them in the crisis state. In such a case, I help them remain calm, assess the situation, and even decide on an initial course of action. Helping them to recall how they have dealt with problems like this in the past is very helpful. Helping them identify resources and relationships they have that can help is useful. Guiding them to not be a harm to themselves or others is crucial. Typically a crisis state doesn’t last too long because these kids are very resilient and respond well to crisis counselling. Because I work in a team environment, I can often pass along severe situations to licensed social workers or to professional emergency services in Austin. However, I handle mild to medium crisis quite often. This means helping someone realize they cannot afford to ignore a health problem any longer. This means helping someone through the initial shock of being fired from a job. This means helping someone through the initial shock from a change in a significant relationship. This means helping someone who has reached the end of their rope in terms of faith.

The conversations that I covet the most are conversations of witness and discipleship. I never force these conversations, but I pray for and open the door to them daily. I often ask groups of kids to tell religious jokes. This almost always leads to one of them asking a serious question about faith. I am greeted by “You’re a Christian, right?” at least once a week by someone who has been thinking about a faith question for some time and finally comes forward. Sometimes these are not too serious and I take them as an opportunity to plan a seed. Other times, it question is very sincere and I try to make sure I take time and energy to water seeds already planted by other workers. And sometimes the questions come from a brother and sister in Christ who is in need of support and assurance.

Often I end conversations with the question of “What can I be praying for you about?” Quite often I get “Nothing. I’m good” answer but when I continue to look at them, they usually change their answer. Whenever I can, we pray together for this. Sometimes this is very heart warming and emotional. Sometimes they return to tell of amazing answers to prayer.

So I hope I have given insight into what it looks like to work on the street. It is a privilege. Almost every day is filled with finding new people, finding out new things, and discovering cool things about really interesting people. They are good folks, but they need help. And most of all, they need to know Jesus Christ and have the chance to grow in the presence of His love and mercy.

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March 20, 2009

You will always have the poor


I work with the impoverished every day, with a focus on people who are homeless or street dependent. I promise that I would have never guessed that I could make such a statement 10 years ago. Wow!

The poor were largely invisible to me 10 years ago. I know they were in my community, but I lived in such a way and at such a pace that I never saw them. A short term mission trip to Mexico changed that for me. Upon returning, I found life too fast. I found isolated consumerism an unacceptable substitute for community. And I saw the poor for the first time.

We often hear Matthew 26:11 quoted in relationship to serving the poor. Proponents for social welfare quote this as providing justification that the poor deserve our attention. Opponents of social programs cite this as evidence that there is no solution to poverty. However, I recently heard a preacher put a spin on it that has gotten me to thinking in a different way, a way that rings much truer for me that either of these conclusions.

When we take time to walk with the poor, they and we are both changed. When we stop to find out what someone needs… truly needs… we are able to give them gifts of great meaning. When we begin to minister in this real way, we find that we ourselves are lifted up. By walking together, both the served and the server and healed and made well.

So… here is the clincher. What if when Jesus said, “You will always have the poor” he was not merely making a commentary on social order. What if he was not ranking the importance of worship of God over helping of people. What if he were responding to a deep and true understanding that He was leaving his people and they would need help to find their way. What is he was giving a most precious gift: “You will always have the poor. I give you this precious gift so that, if you will take the time and effort to love them as your neighbor, you will both be restored and healed. I love you this much!”

I think society desperately needs to heal its relationship with the poor. In my town, we seem to be at war with the poor. Drive them out! Give them tickets! Get them out of town! If they can’t behave, label them as felons or convicted criminals with morally questionable backgrounds. I have come to believe that we are harming our own society by excluding a part of it. We need the poor, and we need a healthy relationship with them. We cannot ignore, turn away, or prosper by driving them away. We need to include them, love them, and talk with them as equals.

I believe that many of the homeless and poor in our midst will grow up and be people of great strength, drawing upon their backgrounds and experiences and resourcefulness to face, address, and ultimately solve problems that we would otherwise lack the ability and courage to resolve. Many of the mid 20th century leaders rose from the poverty and turmoil of the early 20th century. I can only imagine what is yet to come.

March 12, 2009

You Just Stand


Today I had a hard ministry day. I was sick last week in the bed with flu, so I was really glad to be back in the field and in the streets. The first half of my day went as expected. People were glad to see me up and around again. I helped various people. I supervised as a group of friends help a friend walk off a bad dose of drugs. I counseled a young man wanting to stop his heroine use. I made plans to help someone write a resume and encouraged them in overcoming anxiety they have with the whole job thing. All this may sound bad or like a downer, but it is what I was made for. I am shaped perfectly in order to do the work described. The tough part came in the last two hours of my day.

I was presented by a friend with a young person, about 28 years old. This person was new to the streets. They needed help (physical things to make a night on the street safer), but it was after 5pm so none of the best sources of help were open any longer. This person was anxious inside the crowded place where we met, so I went outside to talk with him. It was cold and rainy today, so this meant being outside with him. I did an mental assessment through our conversation. This person was not a danger to himself. This person was not hooked on drugs. But this person has had about a multi-month episode of troubles. The more I talked, but more I could tell that this person was suffering some side effects of a mental condition. However, it was mild enough that there was no need to call in help.

I explained the options available to this person for shelter tonight. He didn’t like them. I understood but there really wasn’t any other options to offer. He could go to one of our two shelters. Both are scary. He could call a number in his pocket of someone willing to loan him a tent so he could camp outside. He could begin to hitchhike to his sisters in another state. Or he could pursue a couple of other even poorer options. However, for each, he had reasons why he couldn’t choose the option.

I tried another approach. I explored his relationship assets. He has a terrible and broken relationship with his father. No help there. His mother is dead. His sister lives in another state and will only help if he goes there. He has no friends in town, except friends that he labels as evil.

I tried faith. I asked if faith were a resource for him, an open ended question that usually gets an honest answer about the faith of a person. He said yes emphatically. So I asked him what kind and how that was going. He said that he’s a Christian seeker, and doing all he could to learn more. What luck… I’m a Christian missionary! I asked about his current understanding. It seemed minimal (although I have no need to judge him), so I explained grace. He understood but still I could sense that it wasn’t all there for him yet. We talked about sin. He seemed to understand, but I could tell that he didn’t quite. We talked about how rebellious we all are and how Jesus will absolutely always take us back. His eyes watered but he still held back. Finally, I asked him if he believed he was truly a beloved child of God. He said he wanted to, but something held him back. He said it was all the evil around him. We prayed together for safety, deliverance, comfort, and guidance.

Despite all that I knew to do, I could not get through today. I could not help him find a good alternative for shelter. I could not help him find a good resource for support. I could not help him today break through in his faith. There was nothing left to do but to stand in the cold and the rain with him. We stood and talked for about an hour more. We were both quite chilled. He was troubled enough that I just could not leave him. I was reminded of a Linda Martin song, “What do you do when it seems like you can’t make it through? Well you just stand. When there’s nothing left to do, you just stand. Watch the Lord see you through. After you’ve done all you can, you just stand.” So we just stood.

When it came time for me to leave, he thanked me. He said that I had obviously given him all that I had to give and he was grateful. He called the friend who might help him find a place to camp outside tonight. I pray that he is safe. I pray that he finds a way to surrender and accept grace. I pray that he finds a peace that surpasses all understanding tonight.

March 10, 2009

The Worst Critic


Street youth have a lot of critics. Most are homeless. Many dress and act rebelliously. Many have no job at all. Few have steady jobs. Many didn’t graduate high school or get a GED. Many turn to alcohol and some turn to drugs. It’s easy to make a list of things not to like.

Many business owners in my town wish the street youth would hang out somewhere else. They are too near their shop doors. They are too near their businesses. They say they don’t fit in with the image they want. Many business owners are critical of street youth.

Many university students in my city are uncomfortable with street youth. Many of the street youth are panhandlers. Some are aggressive panhandlers, and the students are uncomfortable with aggressive panhandlers. Some of the street youth leave behind trash. Many students are critical of street youth.

The police in my town want fewer mis-dealings with street youth. Some police officers are critical that of the street youth contribute more than their fair share to the workload of the peace officer. They have publicly announced a project to “drive” the youth somewhere else, calling it “Project Pied Piper.”

Many vocal critics… But who do you think the worst critics are of street youth? In my experience, it is the street youth themselves. “I have no skills,” one said to me recently. “Oh really?,” I asked. Then I started to ask them how they live and how they get buy. Pretty soon we had a list of skills. But the youth are very critical in how they look at themselves.

“I screw up everything I ever try to do,” another told me. “I’m just a drunk and good for nothing,” another said. After living with their freedoms and rebellion, it is amazing that this is what they are left with: “I’m hopeless. There is no way out.” “I have never accomplished anything” was a recent statement I heard. I spent the next 5 minutes helping show this young man that they had exaggerated significantly.

If a sports team hears that they are a loser over and over, we all know how the season will turn out. They will become the losers the coach has told them they are. I believe we owe it to street youth to be coaches for them… coaches who will tell them that they can rise above their own self criticism, or the criticism lobbed at them from the community, and they can be winners. They have valuable insights, skills, and passions to contribute to society. Some aren’t ready yet to change, but many do want to change and need encouragement. Each of them is an individual with strengths and weaknesses.

I applaud all those who have the courage to street youth as individual persons of worth. As one store owner in my town had the courage to recently said, “I am wary of pigeonholing all homeless as helpless bums. People can change.” Way to say it! Amen.