Jan 27, 2009

A Day on the Street

I was recently asked, "What's it like to spend the day working on the street?" This was in response to my Facebook and Twitter status "Terry is excited about spending the day with street youth." So I thought I'd share my answer...

I meet at a parking lot down behind the university at 8:30. The ministry trailer arrives, along with my missionary friends from Germany and Switzerland (hfan.org). We quickly park the trailer and do some initial setup. Then we pray together for safety, open hearts and minds, and the ability to share the Gospel for the day. We walk over to a market square which is the big hangout for young homeless folks, talking and sharing with one another along the way.

On the square, we do several worship and praise songs. The German and Swiss missionaries play guitars and the djembe. We all sing. It is wonderful to worship there in the square in front of everyone. University students, businessmen, vendors, police, and homeless all pass by and watch and listen. I say silent prayers for many of them as they walk through this busy place. When we are done, we invite those nearby to the trailer for coffee and oatmeal or soup.

On this particular morning, I spied a young man sitting in a hunched over pile in the corner. He didn't look well. I approached him, asked if he was OK, and introduced myself. He was new to town and had been beaten up by 5 people he thought were new friends last night while they were all drinking together. He spent the night in hospital before being release at 6am. I did some assessment conversation to determine how best to help him today, and then invited him over to the trailer for oatmeal. Almost nobody is dangerous all the time on the street, but almost everyone knows how to be dangerous. The street is a rough place at times and his experience last night is a bitter reminder of this fact.

Back at the trailer, we open up, setup and start our generator, and get our coffee and hot water going. Homeless folks come. On this day, it was mild weather so they sat outside in the parking lot in a circle as well as inside the trailer on the three bench seats. We make them oatmeal, instant ramen soup (5 flavors), offer coffee and tea, and oatmeal cookies. Around all this food, we carry on conversations to see how the people are individually. We open conversation about the Bible, the church, and most especially about Jesus and his Grace. On this particular day, I sat down with a young man and spent some time discussing his faith, his lack of interaction with the church, and how it effects him. Somewhere in all this activity, I sat down to eat my own breakfast of two instant oatmeals with the homeless. It was very busy morning.


Around 11:30, the missionaries and I start making sure everyone has what they want, because we close at noon. I sat down to have hot and spicy ramen with a couple of homeless youth and a missionary friend. We discussed the Bible and how the various books came to be selected centuries ago.

At noon, I go to a different location and continue ministry in a more classical social work format of giving out canned food, clothing, job assistance on the Internet computers, referrals to a medical clinic, etc. I'll save the details for another post, but that continues until 4pm. Then it's time to go to a meal served at a local church that invites all the youth to eat. I circulate among the tables, meeting new people, assessing people I haven't seen today, and talking with all those who have come. If there is enough food, I sit down and eat with those I don't know well or with those who have had a hard day for one reason or another and haven't been responsive to conversation. Sharing a meal usually opens up new conversation and new possibility of helping them. However, on this day, there were so many homeless young people (unusually high) that there was not enough food for me to eat. I waited until I got home that night.

On this particular day, I said goodbye to someone who was planning to leave during the weekend. This person wants to escape some patterns of behavior that have developed in Austin. They are very troubling to the person and even cause confusion as to who the person is inside. I tried to encourage the person to make a new start and to expect progress to come day by day, step by step, and not always to be steady and upward. The person left very low despite my encouragement. In fact, I have not seen this person again... my prayers are with this traveler.

Finally, I attend a self care weekly meeting with many of the social workers I work with. We check in with one another, sharing how we feel about the past week and how we feel about various people we've been helping. Self care is extremely important. That meeting wraps up at 7pm.

So that's a full day on the street working with homeless. It's very demanding of your energy. It's very personal. It requires constant conversation and respectful questions of each person you meet. It requires careful on-the-fly thought about what to share of yourself. It's helpful to remember names and remember the situation going on when you last saw the person. On this particular day, I had 60 conversations with about 40 people. Those conversations ranged from many brief "what's up" and pure "small talk" exchanges, to tens of targeted follow-up over concerning situations I knew about form last time, several initial assessment conversations with new people, two outright crisis intervention conversations, many relief and referral exchanges, and many witness conversations.

That's a day of outreach and ministry. It's my hardest day. Most days are half of this, but spending the whole day helps me understand what life on the street is like. There is no break. There is no stopping. You just keep moving thorugh the day. I get to go home in the evening. They just keep on moving through the day into tomorrow. Join me in praying that tomorrow will be better, that they will be stronger, and that they will come to know Jesus who heals and restores all things.

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