Mar 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.