A Heavenly Journey to Hell and Back

Two Men, Six Cities, One Goal: Homeless in America

by Sarah Hammill

If you had passed by recent Westmont graduate Mike Yankoski on the streets of San Francisco three years ago, chances are you wouldn’t have noticed him. If you had, it wouldn’t have been because of his curly mop of brown hair, the friendly eyes that smile out from behind his glasses, or his classic surfer T-shirt and flip-flops. From the spring through the fall of 2003, Yankoski’s most noticeable features were likely the smell of urine and dirt, the constant strain of worship music he and his friend Sam Purvis played for spare change, or the backpack Yankoski carried, stuffed to the brim with all he owned. And yet, three years later, Yankoski is a college graduate, a married man, and a published author of Under the Overpass: A Journey of Faith on the Streets of America, an account of his experiences as a homeless man. On the surface, it’s an unlikely trajectory — from college to the streets, then back to college — but Yankoski is, in many ways, an unlikely guy, and his journey to street life began in the most unusual of places. I sat down with him over coffee to get the story.

It was a sunny Sunday morning that changed Yankoski’s life forever. He was sitting in a pew at Goleta Community Covenant Church, listening to a sermon on being the Christian you say you are, when he felt his heartstrings begin to be tugged. “I sat there in church struggling to remember a time when I’d actually needed to lean fully on Christ rather than my own abilities,” Yankoski writes in Under the Overpass. “The picture that came with that question was of me homeless and hungry on the streets of America.” He walked back out into the sunshine that day a changed man.

Convinced of his purpose, Yankoski began to plan his journey, assembling a team of advisors that included Westmont’s campus pastor and the directors of the Santa Barbara and Denver rescue missions, among others. Together, they came up with a clearly stated mission for Yankoski’s journey: to gain a better understanding of homelessness in America, encourage other Christians to live their faith in challenging ways, and learn to depend more fully on Christ. Most who learned of his plan were supportive, though wary at first, and virtually all were in agreement that Yankoski would be much safer with someone to accompany him. And yet, as the departure date drew near, Yankoski was still without a traveling partner. “I wanted to go with somebody but it became February and I started saying to my advisors, ‘I think I’m gonna have to go this alone.’”

A month later he met Purvis, and in just a few short weeks, the two departed for Denver, the first of six cities they would visit and the only city where the two did not spend their time together. At the advice of the Denver Rescue Mission’s president, Yankoski eased into street life by living at the inner city location, while Purvis took up residence at The Farm, a work facility for rehabilitating homeless people. “It wouldn’t have been weird if one of us came in [to the rehab facilities], but if both of us came in who were significantly younger than the other guys, then it would raise more eyebrows,” Yankoski explained. After 31 days of learning street lingo, seeing firsthand the effects of addiction, and witnessing the struggles of men fighting for a new place in society, Yankoski and Purvis were ready for their real journey: life without the protection of security guards, daylong stretches with no promise of food, and the wide open sky as their canopy.

The two men packed only the necessities for their trip, including for each a pair of underwear, shorts, and jeans, a T-shirt, a sweatshirt, a few books and journals to keep notes from their trip, two battered guitars with which to earn their meals, sleeping bags, and backpacks.

They brought no cash or credit cards, aside from a few dollars in emergency money in case one of them was seriously injured and needed a cab ride to the hospital. Their plan was simple. Over the course of five months, they would live in six different cities, starting first in Denver, then moving to Washington, D.C.; Portland; San Francisco; Phoenix; and finally ending in San Diego. The money they made panhandling would finance bus tickets to each city, with the exception of the trip from D.C. to Portland, for which they flew to save time. The pair felt sure that if anyone found out they were choosing to be homeless, they would be treated differently, and so agreed to keep their whereabouts and purpose a secret in order to experience homelessness as authentically as possible. “From the start, Sam and I understood that we would not actually be homeless,” Yankoski writes. “We’d only be travelers through this underworld of need — privileged visitors, really, because anytime we wished, we could leave the streets and come home.”

But they did not come home, not before the five months was up, and their experiences on the streets have forever shaped their lives. “You go through something like this with somebody and you’re pretty much friends for life,” said Yankoski, though the partnership wasn’t without bumps in the road. “You’re hot, you’re tired, and you haven’t eaten, and on top of it you have two 20-year-old guys who are prideful and stubborn and you have them spend 24 hours a day together and you just have to figure conflict is inevitable.”

Despite some late night arguments, the pairing was instrumental in both men’s safety. The two were always aware of their vulnerability, but rarely as acutely as one night in San Francisco. While sleeping under a bridge, they were approached by a witch doctor requesting a fingernail or piece of Yankoski’s dreadlock for his medicine bag. The two declined and the doc left. “Five minutes later, these three huge guys walk along,” said Yankoski. “We can hear their conversation about jumping us because they assume we have drugs. Before we have to respond, the witch doctor comes running across the street, talks to the guys, and convinces them he has stuff they might want to buy. They went with him instead of jumping us.” Fortunately, that was as close as they got to significant personal danger. “Those are the experiences I believe we were kept safe from, where we were right on the edge but never had to fall off.”

Without any serious foiling of the men’s plot on the streets, they were free to panhandle, toil alternately in the blazing sun (D.C.) and freezing cold (S.F.), and scavenge for food and shelter. Though each city presented its own challenges — Phoenix was so spread out it took hours to walk from a food kitchen to a church service, and Portland poured sheets of rain down on them frequently — Yankoski was adamant that San Francisco was the hardest, largely due to the fact that there is such a large homeless presence in the city. “I think the number of homeless people has made the city respond by saying ‘There’s nothing we can do.’” Add to that a racially loaded powder keg waiting to explode, and you’ve got yourself a miserable four weeks. “The racial tension I didn’t understand because San Francisco tends to be such an eclectic environment. We were literally told not to cross the street after dark because we were white and we’d get killed,” Yankoski said.

As with anything in life, the more you do it, the better you get, and life on the streets is no different. Yankoski and Purvis quickly learned the best spots to sleep and where they would most likely get food. But one skill seemed to elude them, at least at times, throughout the trip. Panhandling is fundamental to the life of the homeless person and can present a number of paradoxes. As the two soon learned, when you reek of filth and are caked in dirt, you don’t exactly want to be noticed. And yet, the homeless man needs to be noticed if he is to get a coin thrown into his hat or guitar case. Yankoski and Purvis’s mission became to ensure that that interaction took place. But it was no easy task.

“Begging is hard. It’s something you expect hungry dogs to do, but not men and women made in God’s image. … On our first go at it, begging was almost too humiliating to bear,” writes Yankoski. As they were ignored by each person who walked by, Yankoski’s vision of depending wholly on God began to become much clearer. “I felt my frustration rising until I realized how unentitled I really was. No one deserves mercy. And no one walking by owed us a dime. … Every coin in the case looked different after that.”

By the time the two reached San Diego, their final city, the project had gone from an experiment to a new way of life, and as they would quickly learn upon reentry into their former lives of privilege, there would be deeper and longer-lasting effects than they ever could have imagined. On November 2, 2003, Yankoski and Purvis stepped off the streets and into a friend’s car in Ocean Beach. They would be going to a celebration dinner that evening but first had to clean themselves up. “A worn and filthy man stared back at me from the mirror,” Yankoski writes, “… scraggly beard, matted hair with bits and pieces of several destinations embedded in the dreadlocks, dark circles under the eyes, a ring of filth around the neck, grime pressed into the creases of the skin, sunbaked arms and face and neck. … I didn’t want to forget this person I’d chosen to become.”

Forgetting, as he has discovered, hasn’t been so easy. The longest-lasting effects for him have been psychological, and simple conversations and personal space have been social dances Yankoski has had to relearn. “It was weird when someone was sitting right here [motioning to the seat next to him], because normally I would be thinking about protecting my bag,” he said. Another issue we often take for granted is the simple act of making eye contact. “There is a lot of depression on the streets. It can make you not as comfortable with yourself and you start trying to find ways to make as little impact as possible.”

And though time has worn away much of the outward marks of his trip, the emotional and spiritual effects will be everlasting. Since his return, Yankoski has graduated from Westmont with a computer science degree, gotten married to his longtime girlfriend, and written and published Under the Overpass.

But his journey isn’t ending there. “Personally, I think there is a lot I have a responsibility to do since I’ve had this experience. I think my role is to be a voice to get other people involved,” Yankoski said. “In San Francisco there were signs on buses with pictures of homeless people that said ‘Don’t give money to panhandlers — you’re just keeping me here.’” Ironically, since Yankoski himself survived on such handouts, he agrees. With all the drug and alcohol abuse on the streets, much of that money feeds the cycle of addiction. “But the signs on the bus are only half the story. There are so many other things you can give besides cash,” Yankoski said, his face lit with both excitement and frustration. “Look, if you see someone who’s hungry, feed them. If you see someone who’s thirsty, give them something to drink.”

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