Friday, November 19, 2010

Under the Overpass by Mike Yankoski (review)

Under the Overpass: A Journey of Faith on the Streets of America
By Mike Yankoski
Copyright 2005/2010 reprint
Multnomah - Memoir/Christian
235 pages

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." (Philippians 4:11-12)

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?

--from the first chapter of Under the Overpass. Read the entire forward and first chapter of Under the Overpass here.

Mike Yankoski was a college student when the epiphany he described above took place. Troubled by "the hypocrisy in my life" and the concern that he wasn't doing enough as a Christian to help others, Mike decided to spend time living with almost nothing, sleeping on the ground and in shelters, carrying his few possessions -- including a guitar for the purposes of begging -- with him. But, he didn't think it would be wise to play the role of a homeless man alone, so he recruited a friend. Together, Mike and his friend Sam spent 5 months on the streets of a number of different cities: Denver, Washington, D. C., Portland, San Francisco, Phoenix and San Diego.

I'm not quite sure why Mike and Sam chose to move around from one city to another, but each city had a unique character in the way residents treated their homeless, how those who lived in each city became homeless (there were quite a few veterans in D.C., for example) and the amount of money they were able to earn by singing for donations or, sometimes, flat-out begging. Most of the time they didn't make enough to get by and they often went hungry or ate very nasty food -- whatever they could acquire with each days earnings.

As they spent nights in a shelter (in Denver, to break into their new life slowly) and then in parks, under bridges and on the streets of their chosen cities, they learned about what the homeless really need, experienced plenty of humiliation and a great deal of personal discomfort, and were deeply touched by a few random acts of kindness.

The bottom line:

An incredibly eye-opening, powerful read. I can't imagine how anyone could close this book and not see the world in a different way and yearn to help in some manner. Not Christian? Personally, I don't think that matters. You can ignore the Christian message and just read Under the Overpass for the glimpse into what life is like for the homeless. You'll get an idea who exactly is adrift and why, find out what you should and shouldn't do to help the homeless, and find yourself very, very thankful for soap, water and food.

The night I finished reading Under the Overpass, I closed the book with a growling stomach. It is still difficult to look at food the same way after reading about what it's like to live without food or have to dive into the garbage to grab someone else's leftovers. I spent a lot of time just looking at my food, that night, thinking about how much a plate of nachos would mean to someone who hadn't eaten all day.

What surprised me about this book:

I was stunned to find that even when they managed to buy food to pack away for later, they had to deal with things like rats . . . on the beach. Ewww.

I was not surprised to learn that a great majority of the homeless are either drug addicted or mentally ill, but I was surprised by the way people treated them. Ignoring them is one thing, but Mike and Sam were constantly told they had to move, denied the opportunity to eat restaurant leftovers that would have gone into the garbage anyway, and heckled. Occasionally, they heard people talking about Christianity -- one time, comparing favorite Bible translations -- but obviously without even contemplating offering food or help to Mike or Sam. They were taken out for a meal once. Here's another passage I love:

An ongoing struggle to find safety, a place to sleep, a bathroom, and food becomes dehumanizing for anyone. One experience at a time, a person's sense of dignity and sense of self-worth gets stripped away. I don't know what the experience would be like for someone who has lived on the streets for thirty years.

But I do know this: blithely allowing this terrible stripping to occur is a blot on the conscience of America, and especially on the conscience of the church. If we as believers choose to forget that everyone--even the shrunken soul lying in the dooryway--is made in the image of God, can we say we know our Creator? If we respond to others based on their outward appearance, haven't we entirely missed the point of the gospel?

--p. 103

What I kept coming back to:

My kids and I (or, maybe just one of my children) were eating outdoors at a local Sonic several years ago when a homeless man showed up and sat down. The outdoor eating facilities are pretty limited but I'd say the fellow was probably about 15-20 feet away from us. His smell was unbearably rank. He wore layer upon layer of clothing (which is enough to make anyone smell bad, in Mississippi, although it was an unusually pleasant day). We were disappointed to find that we couldn't tolerate the smell and had to leave.

It didn't even remotely occur to me that the nicest thing you can do for a homeless person is buy him a meal and talk to him. Yankoski advises readers to talk to the homeless and feed them, take a coat you're not using from your closet and give it to a homeless person on a cold night (but don't go alone), or volunteer at a homeless shelter.

My thanks to Multnomah for the review copy of Under the Overpass. I'm planning to pass this one around to some church friends and I've contacted a friend who does volunteer work at a local shelter. She's going to put me to work, soon.

Fiona Friday will be delayed till Saturday afternoon, but don't worry. It's a comin'.

©2010 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery and Babble, you are reading a stolen feed. Email for written permission to reproduce text or photos.


  1. This sounds like a really interesting book! Thank you for posting about it.

  2. Amy,

    I thought it was excellent - very thought-provoking. And, he did address the fact that they knew they'd eventually cease to be homeless, so their experience was still not entirely realistic without true hopelessness. It's a very honest book.

  3. If you work in a shelter, it will make you see things in a whole new way. On duty one night while I was in seminary, I sat on the edge of the stage talking to one man while dozens slept on cots in the gymnasium of a church. Men were in the big area, women in a smaller room elsewhere. Very interesting, watching over them while they got some rest, feeding them the next morning, leaving and going back to my apartment where I could shower and go about my life. That big church in Atlanta had showers and washer-dryer access. Even there, we had to deal with a ruckus in the middle of the night -- a drunk man wanting in. You go, girl!

  4. Bonnie,

    I think I'm destined to do something because a note from my next-door neighbor arrived in my inbox while I was reading the book. She said she hasn't done much lately, just her volunteer work at the homeless shelter. Wow. Cool timing or what? :)

  5. I think I would like to read this one. It sounds very much like a book I read by George Orwell called Down and Out in Paris and London. It's about time Orwell spent living among the very poor and homeless in those two cities. He did it to document their living conditions and how they were treated by charities, police and the like, with hopes of getting laws passed that would be more humane and give them better assistance. It's very interesting and eye-opening.

  6. Wow, that does sound like a powerful read. Most of my interactions with the homeless happened when I was in college because there were a lot of homeless people around campus. The biggest lesson I learned was to offer food but not money to those who were begging.

  7. Jeane,

    I have a copy of Down and Out, etc., but I haven't read it. My eldest son went through a dark & dreary lit phase and I bought it for him when he was into Orwell. Thanks for the reminder. I know where my copy is and this would be a great time to read it. Under the Overpass is geared more toward how we as humans can help the homeless; it's not the slightest bit political but I found myself thinking back to the Reagan days and how we suddenly went from locking up mental patients to losing them to the streets.


    That is exactly what Mike Yankoski says. Because so many of the homeless are drug addicts, giving them money (even if they frame it as, "I'm hungry, I need money to travel", etc.) is absolutely not going to help because many of them use money to fuel their drug habits. Mike and Sam were actually scammed a couple of times; some addicts are so bad that they'll go without eating to get their fix. Around here, we get a lot of people claiming they need gas money. I always tell them I don't carry cash because I know better.


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