Under the Overpass by Mike Yankoski

69 in my 2011 book blogging challenge.

I have mixed feelings about Under the Overpass. It’s an interesting story. I was absorbed in it and didn’t want to put it down. I’m just not sure what I think of the whole operation this story is based on.

Mike Yankoski and a friend decided to live on the streets for a few months in order to learn more about the homeless. They survived by panhandling. They played guitars and left the cases open, hoping that people would drop money in. Usually they got enough to eat. That’s about it.

These two young men did this to learn more about homelessness from a Christian perspective. They were (and are) Christians. When they panhandled, they played Christian praise music. They sometimes talked to people about their Christianity, but they didn’t go on the streets in an attempt to evangelize. They went to experience what it was like to be homeless so as to develop more compassion and understanding.

I can respect the motivation of developing more compassion, and I have to say I learned quite a bit from their story. I’m just hesitant over the whole idea because they were basically homeless under false pretenses. They had homes and families. They didn’t have to be out there. Their presence didn’t do anything to help the people they were there to observe. They were actually competing with these people for the charity of others, and they were accepting the help of others without them that they only had to call their parents if they wanted money for a hotel room and a plane ticket home.

I really didn’t like the idea that they were panhandling to feed themselves instead of getting out there to feed the real homeless people.

On the other hand, I did feel like their experiences on the streets gave them a unique perspective. I also felt like they had some very practical advice for how to respond to homelessness. I think this a book that people who want to help the homeless should read, especially if their motivation for helping is based on Christian faith.

I’ll just leave my comments there, but I will share one practical tip from the book. Many people are reluctant to give money to panhandlers because they are afraid the money will go to drugs and alcohol instead of food. This is a realistic concern. Lots of people on the streets are addicts. Yankoski recommends handling this in two ways.

First, stop and talk to the person you want to help. Don’t just toss money over and walk away. Many times what homeless people need is human contact. They need genuine compassion and caring, not just money.

Two, don’t give cash. Instead, keep gift cards to fast food places on hand so that you will have them to give out when you run across a person in need. This will help to assure that you are giving food, not alcohol.

Yankoski has plenty more advice and plenty more insights. Despite my misgivings about the methods of gathering information, the book is well worth the read. Like I said, it’s especially worth it for people who want to understand the issue of homelessness from a Christian viewpoint. Yankoski reminds us that Christianity is supposed to be about serving the neediest among us. It doesn’t get much more needy than homeless. All Christians should be thinking pretty hard about the issues raised in this book.

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