Even though it’s some months from Thanksgiving, the time when we all remember the homeless, Joy Junction, New Mexico’s largest emergency homeless shelter, and many other homeless shelters worldwide, will still have individuals and entire families without roofs over their heads tonight.
So many in fact that we continue to run at capacity. Most of those we help are hurting. Some are addicted to illegal drugs and alcohol.
The Street Lawyer
Some years ago, the everyday plight of the homeless was brought to light by a well-known author, who reminded us of two important facts of life: First, even in the summer, the homeless still need our help. Second, with proper help, many of today’s homeless can turn their lives around.
The book was called “The Street Lawyer,” and it was written by John Grisham, the man who gave us “The Firm” and “The Testament,” and a host of other material. Without giving away too much of the plot, the book begins when a homeless man follows a Washington, D.C. lawyer into his law firm and then takes the firm hostage.
The man holds workers at the law firm into the evening, demanding to know how much of their income was donated to homeless shelters. He orders that food from a homeless shelter be delivered to the law firm’s sixth floor conference room. While he opens the door to allow the food to be brought in, a police sharpshooter kills him.
That incident is a life-transforming experience for Michael, a young attorney who soon becomes a legal advocate for the rights of the homeless. Grisham writes that Michael determines he “would spend whatever was necessary to get (the homeless)into a warm place. They would soon become (his) clients, and (he) would threaten and litigate with a vengeance until they had adequate housing. (He) didn’t care what it would cost or how long it might take.”
For those of us who have dedicated ourselves to transforming lives of the homeless, “The Street Lawyer” contains more than a hint of truth, and it is sometimes a depressing truth. While most homeless people pose no threat to our community, the fact is, some homeless can be violent and irrational.
They have also typically made bad decisions in their lives, getting involved with illegal drugs or abusing alcohol. Denying this fact would do more harm than good.
Yet the problem with stereotyping extends to the homeless. There are other homeless who are not significantly different than those of us who can afford to be clothed, fed and sheltered. These people, such as runaways and victims of domestic abuse, come to missions through little or no fault of their own.
They are also people who have served this nation in times of need. According to national past surveys conducted by Joy Junction and other Rescue Missions around the U.S., nearly one in three men at our Missions is a veteran. Nearly half of these are veterans of the Vietnam War and about one in 10 served during the Gulf War.
Under The Overpass
Another excellent book (and written from a conservative evangelical perspective) that successfully illustrates the plight of the homeless from the author’s personal experience is called “Under the Overpass” (www.undertheoverpass.com), by Mike Yankoski. A young Christian college student at the time, Yankoski and a friend voluntarily plunged themselves into the unfamiliar world of homelessness.
As a portion of the 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 this all come about? Yankoski explained in an extract from the book. He wrote, “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.”
The result of Yankoski and friend’s venture into street life is a book you need to read. You can find out more about how to buy “Under the Overpass” at www.undertheoverpass.com
If there’s one thing I’ve learned after almost 26 years of working with the homeless in Albuquerque and 30 years in New Mexico), it is that, with help, they can and will turn their lives around. Specifically, rehabilitation requires not only mental and physical counseling, but also spiritual nurturing to give these men and women the strength they need to return to society. That’s what Joy Junction in particular, and faith based ministries in general, are all about.
This nurturing of faith is the key to taking people off the streets, giving them new lives and making them productive. Yet it must be done in a sustained way. Just as the problems creating homelessness are not “seasonal,” so too the solutions to homelessness cannot simply be administered at certain times of the year.
The homeless need an environment in which they are challenged to acknowledge and consistently renounce unhealthy behaviors; otherwise, they will never acquire the practical or emotional skills they need to succeed. Establishing responsibility and accepting an abiding faith in Jesus Christ is the beginning of transforming the life from the streets to a safe and successful life.
Those of us who minister to Albuquerque’s homeless at Joy Junction consider ourselves Christian faithful. It is our faith in the transforming power of the Lord that gives us the strength to get out of bed every morning and care for men and women that cause some people in Albuquerque to recoil.
As you go about your daily duties, please remember those in need – even before the holidays. In the Grisham book, when the main character first goes to a homeless shelter, he looks around and declares the situation hopeless.
For Joy Junction, helping the homeless is difficult, but with the transforming power of Christian faith, combined with your generosity over almost the last quarter century plus, we are succeeding. Please help us continue what we are doing, and also to expand, by going to www.togetherwecan.joyjunction.org