Finding Jesus on the Streets - Part 1 (Transcript)

Dr. James Dobson: Welcome everyone to Family Talk. It's a ministry of the James Dobson Family Institute supported by listeners, just like you. I'm Dr. James Dobson, and I'm thrilled that you've joined us.

Roger Marsh: In Matthew 25, Jesus commends His followers who fed the hungry and cared for the needy. He goes on to say that those who neglected the poor and destitute were actually neglecting Christ Himself. I'm Roger Marsh, and you're listening to Dr. James Dobson's Family Talk. Did you know that over half a million people in the United States are currently homeless? That means that tonight more than 500,000 people created in the image of God will be without shelter. Well, today on the broadcast, you're going to hear a fascinating conversation that Dr. Dobson had with Mikey Yankoski.

In the early 2000s, Mike felt God calling him to minister to homeless people in the U.S. In order Mike decided to actually live on the streets himself and did so for five full months. He did life with these overlooked individuals as a fascinating and radical social experiment. Mike recounted his time on the streets in his 2005 book titled Under the Overpass. Today in part one of this classic conversation, Mike will described to Dr. Dobson, what it was like to beg for money and food. He'll also talk about some of the interactions he had with pedestrians and other homeless people as well. Well, let's jump right into Mike's conversation with Dr. Dobson right now here on this special edition of Family Talk.

Dr. James Dobson: Two years ago, you were starting to think about what became this book. You didn't set out to write this book, but you had read another book that planted the idea. What was that book?

Mike Yankoski: Well, actually having read Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin, there was a lot of correlation between that, but it was interesting. It was actually about three years ago that the idea came while sitting in a church service and realizing that I was being quite hypocritical with my life. And compared to what the pastor was saying which was a sermon about Christians living the Christian life, I actually found myself falling asleep and not paying very much attention to it. But woke up and started thinking, what would it look like to go and become homeless, to understand more of what these three or four million women, men and women are faced with every day across the streets of America.

Dr. James Dobson: And that's what you set out to do, to find out who those people are, how they live, what they need and what that experience of being homeless is about.

Mike Yankoski: That's exactly right.

Dr. James Dobson: And so how does one go about doing that? I mean, there were some preparatory steps absolutely that you had to take.

Mike Yankoski: Absolutely. There was a lot of preparation that went into it. Actually setting off in this. After January of my freshman year, the idea came, but then realized, no, I know nothing about the streets. I know nothing about what's going on there already. I have to find out more about this. So over the course of the next year and a half, did a lot of research, read a lot of books and actually began volunteering in a local rescue mission in order to find out more about the men and the women who are there. Who are these people that make their lives on the streets of America?

Dr. James Dobson: Yeah. You talk to your parents about the possibility too. I assume they weren't thrilled about the idea.

Mike Yankoski: No, absolutely not. Were not very excited about it at all.

Dr. James Dobson: It could be dangerous being out there.

Mike Yankoski: Quite dangerous. You're exactly right. And I don't have the gift of being very subtle. I called them on the telephone was like, "Hey, I got this great idea. I'm going to go be homeless." And sort of silence on the other end and, "We'll talk about this later." That's how that conversation went.

Dr. James Dobson: Parents, myself included, like to brag. My son, the physician. My son, the lawyer, or my daughter, the whatever. Being able to tell your neighbors my son is homeless is not something that I think would thrill them a great deal.

Mike Yankoski: Not typically, no. It was interesting to see how those conversations did go as the story started to go around the neighborhood.

Dr. James Dobson: Now, you didn't want to go alone.

Mike Yankoski: No.

Dr. James Dobson: And you thought you really ought to have a partner. How'd you go about finding one?

Mike Yankoski: Absolutely. Well actually went on a search to try and find another guy to do this with. I mean, Jesus sends out His disciples two by two and just logistically for there to be another person with whom I was traveling, made it a whole lot safer being out there. And so we started asking a couple of my friends at school to be praying and thinking about it. And the doors just didn't open up. It was interesting because where I was seeking wisdom from different rescue mission presidents and pastors, and my youth pastor from my home church here in Parker, asking for their wisdom. And they kept saying, "I don't understand why, but this is something that you should do." Whereas the guys that I was asking, if they would consider going with me when they started seeking wisdom and asking their pastors and youth pastors and people in their lives what they thought they got a resounding, "No, this is not what you should do."

Dr. James Dobson: You were a sophomore.

Mike Yankoski: That's correct.

Dr. James Dobson: At that time.

Mike Yankoski: Yeah.

Dr. James Dobson: All right. How does one become homeless? I mean, usually it's forced on you by circumstances. How do you become homeless? You just strike out? You just walk into a city and sit under a bridge someplace?

Mike Yankoski: That was what it became, but we actually ended up growing our hair out, growing our beards out and really just trying to find a way to step in between our college life, the college experience that I had had, and then in order to join into the community of the homeless. So we ended up doing about a month. This was our first city, a month at the Denver rescue mission in their program, and actually experiencing the rehabilitation that they offered to the men and women. And that was in order for us to help develop relationships in order to start understanding more on a day to day basis who some of these men and women were.

Dr. James Dobson: Did the operators of the rescue mission know that you were experimenting?

Mike Yankoski: Only one or two as a matter of fact. We came straight into the program and just walked off the streets and asked if we could come into the mission and get some help. And they accepted us into it and allowed us to stay there for that month.

Dr. James Dobson: All right. And so then life began. You ultimately went to six cities.

Mike Yankoski: That's correct. Yeah.

Dr. James Dobson: Yeah. So you moved around mostly on the west coast.

Mike Yankoski: Yeah, that's correct. We were actually in Denver, Washington, DC, Portland, San Francisco, Phoenix and San Diego.

Dr. James Dobson: Okay. We've got you up to the rescue mission. What next? How do you progress with this plan?

Mike Yankoski: Well, we actually ended up going to Washington DC after the month in Denver. Went to Washington DC and got dropped off by a friend outside of Union Station. And literally we opened the car door, stepped out, grabbed our packs. We didn't have very many supplies, grabbed our packs and our guitars, slammed the car door. And there we were. Didn't have any resources. I mean, we were just point blank homeless. That's where we were.

Dr. James Dobson: What did you take with you?

Mike Yankoski: Well, it was interesting. We didn't take very many items. We had a backpack that we had purchased at a thrift store for $3 and then a few supplies, one change of clothes, one sweatshirt, a sleeping bag and a guitar. And of course, journals and Bibles and a few books, but very, very sparse resources and not very much stuff to carry around.

Dr. James Dobson: How much money?

Mike Yankoski: We had a $25 emergency reserve that was only to be used if one of us were to get shot or stabbed and needed to make-

Dr. James Dobson: Oh, 25 bucks. That'll help a whole lot.

Mike Yankoski: Exactly. But we never went into it for food. We didn't do it for anything else. So we had zero when we stepped out. We actually had put together a board of advisors in order to help make decisions on this. Proverbs speaks so much about making decisions with council in order to ensure security and safety and victory. And so reading that, asked several different men to form this board of advisors and help us make decisions about questions like that. How long should we do this? Originally the idea was to do it for about a year, but we ended up scaling that back to about five, six months. And so we had set that out. That was our goal, but it was open at the end too, when we felt like we should come off.

Dr. James Dobson: How many advisors did you have?

Mike Yankoski: There were eight on the board of advisors and a youth pastor, a professor from my college, two rescue mission presidents, and then Sam's and my father and actually Don Jacobson as well.

Dr. James Dobson: By the way, identify Sam.

Mike Yankoski: Yeah, Sam. It was really interesting. We met in March, and we actually left for the streets in May. So, we shook hands when Sam was down at Westmont visiting Danae and then also visiting his older brother. Shook hands in March, and we were on the streets in May. Hardly knew one another. And I think even the time for us to be spending that together and not having known one another with so much time. I mean, I can't tell you how long 24 hours is when there's nothing to do.

Dr. James Dobson: Back to back to back.

Mike Yankoski: Exactly. Exactly. So getting to know one another, finding out about one another's history and what we had done when we were kids and growing up through high school and what the Lord had done and how he had led us to that point was something that we spent a lot of time doing during the day.

Dr. James Dobson: And your fellow students at Westmont knew about this. And many of them were praying for you.

Mike Yankoski: That's correct. We had many people supporting us from my home church and from Sam's home church and from Westmont, a lot of support.

Dr. James Dobson: Okay. Mike, your first night on the streets, first night under a bridge someplace. I guess that's what it was.

Mike Yankoski: We actually stepped outside of Union Station in one of the grounds right out front. We had nowhere else to go. Didn't know the city at all. So we had gone walking in the afternoon to a church that we had heard had a choir there who could, was giving out food. So we went there, got food for the afternoon and then walked all the way back up to Union Station and set up our packs and just rolled out the sleeping bags and all the cockroaches and the rats started running around. And it was just such a quick pinpoint of "man, we are here. This is real. Can't go home. Can't get off the streets. Can't change anything about this. Here we are."

Dr. James Dobson: What kind of people were around you?

Mike Yankoski: There was quite a few other homeless men and women there as well, actually sleeping around some of the fountains, trying to rest up against the concrete barriers and get some protection from either the wind or from other people or from insects.

Dr. James Dobson: Was it cold?

Mike Yankoski: It wasn't cold, unfortunate. I wish it had been. It was quite hot. Middle of July in Washington DC, just roasting.

Dr. James Dobson: Yeah. Did they interact with you? Did anybody say welcome to our house? Anybody say anything to you?

Mike Yankoski: As a matter of fact, yes. It was really interesting. We were wondering often whether or not people we're going to realize that we had just sort of journeyed into this homelessness or if we were actually legitimately homeless. It was interesting because we walked from the street into Union Station that first day. And there was a man and woman, another homeless man and woman sitting on the street corner, yelling at people as they went past. And as we walked past, they didn't see us the first time. Went down into Union Station, came out about two hours later, and they called us over and said, "Hey, welcome to Washington DC. Where are you from? Where'd you come in from?" This is a homeless man and woman. And just because we also look homeless, they're telling us where we can go for resources, where we can go to get some food, some help, where to sleep, where to stay out of. So it's a complete community that they were willing to accept us into just because we were there.

Dr. James Dobson: I know that Union Station very well. And the lower floor of it, the basement down, there's the largest fast food arena that I have seen. But you didn't have the money to go buy anything. Did you?

Mike Yankoski: No, you're exactly right. We actually went down into the food court and sat there and I could remember vividly watching a little, I think four or five year old boy. His mom had just bought him a piece of pizza and he refused to eat the pizza. And Sam and I were sitting on a corner table. And again, no money, wishing that we could get some of the food and you're smelling all the different courses and meals and all the different people working behind the counters are just laying all the food on the plates. And this kid refuses to eat the piece of pizza that he has. And his mom eventually just gets frustrated and goes and throws it away. And we weren't ready at that point to get it out of the trash. But

Dr. James Dobson: You would've months later.

Mike Yankoski: Exactly, right. And we ended up doing that.

Dr. James Dobson: Did you really eat out of garbage cans?

Mike Yankoski: We did. We just didn't have the money. And when you don't have the money and we're at the point where geez, I'm hungry right now. And we can't make any money panhandling. So we are either going to go hungry tonight or you know what? There was a sandwich that was just thrown away. Why don't we eat that?

Dr. James Dobson: Well, but you did panhandle.

Mike Yankoski: We did.

Dr. James Dobson: Did you learn to do it?

Mike Yankoski: Eventually. It took a while. It was humiliating to sit down the first night and just realize, wow, okay. I can't use any of the resources that I used to be able to and whether or not I eat tonight is going to be whether or not people are generous in giving us different donations and different change in their pockets as they walk past. So we sit down on the street corner and it's a hot again, sunny summer Washington, DC afternoon, prop open the guitar cases and start playing. And just trying to get past the embarrassment of saying that, "Hey, we have to beg in order to survive right now." But really a crystallizing thing to see how much, when a person is merciful, as they walk past and willing to engage you, even though you're at that destitute position.

Dr. James Dobson: Yeah. Did they do that? I mean, did people stop and talk to you? Did they treat you like a human being? Did they look right through you? Did they stop and show compassion to you? What reaction did you get?

Mike Yankoski: All across the board. Unfortunately, the majority just walked on past, but here's something that was really interesting. Again, in Washington DC as we're sort of just beginning to realize all of the intricacies of living on the streets, we sat outside of a restaurant one evening and a young family walked past us. It was a mom and dad and they were pushing their child in a stroller. And as they walked past, could hear the mother saying, "Hey, we to really need to be open to the working of the Holy Spirit and the gift of giving." And she looked right down to us and then looked up and walked away really quickly. But her kid, her little child, we're on the same level as this little boy, we're sitting on the sidewalk. This kid rolls past and a stroller and just locks eyes with us and just is refusing to pretend that we don't exist. See, it's interesting because as adults, we pretend that people who do exist don't, whereas kids, they pretend people who don't exist do. Complete flip.

Dr. James Dobson: Well said.

Mike Yankoski: That's a complete flip. So kids would acknowledge that we were there and that we were alive and really curious about who we were.

Dr. James Dobson: Now, you could have used your intuition to get people to give to you. You could have said, "Listen, we're students, we've run out of money." You could have done a number of things to have gotten sympathy. Did you play the game the way the homeless people play it?

Mike Yankoski: Yeah. We wanted to experience it as much as we could. And obviously I'm not homeless anymore. Neither is Sam. And many of the men and women who we became friends with on the streets are still out there, and they're going to spend the rest of their lives on the streets. So there was a fundamental difference between who we were in those situations and who those men and women were. But we wanted very much to experience what it actually was to be in their shoes and to see what it is like to be forgotten and ignored by society. So we didn't play any of the gimmicks and games that we could have in order to evoke people's mercy or their donations. We wanted to see it from that perspective.

Dr. James Dobson: How long did it take for you to become repulsive to people? I mean, what I've heard about the homeless is within three or four days, they can't get a job anymore. They don't smell right. They don't look right. Their clothes are dirty, and they begin to look really weird. How quickly did you, well, I mean, I got your picture on the cover. I'm telling you, you look scary. You really do.

Mike Yankoski: With the dread locks and beard.

Dr. James Dobson: Long hair and this big beard and ... You weren't able to bathe, so you had to not smell real good.

Mike Yankoski: You're exactly right. And then again, in the summer in Washington, DC, I mean it's 90 degrees, 90% humidity plus. And so very quickly we became pretty disgusting. I mean, just not being able to shower and then the dirt sticks to you. We're walking all over the city. So you get the smog, the dust, the dirt, sleeping outside, having the wind blow different pieces of trash and dust across you. Very quickly we looked pretty disgusting.

Dr. James Dobson: How'd you feel?

Mike Yankoski: Even more disgusting. It was just so interesting, because we often you can't smell yourself, but we became to the point we smelled so bad continuously, we could smell ourselves. And it was just disgusting. I mean, it was even dehumanizing to realize I am disgusting, and Sam is as well. And nobody is relating to us at all because of what we look like, because of what we smell like, because of our situation.

Dr. James Dobson: There are restrooms obviously in the Union Station, but you were not always around public restrooms. What do homeless people do?

Mike Yankoski: It becomes pretty difficult. For example, one night in Portland, I became pretty sick from something that we had eaten that day. And couldn't find a restroom that was open. I mean, all of the different restaurants and coffee shops had all closed down. 3:00, Portland. I mean, what are you supposed to do? Actually had to end up using some bushes near a river. I mean, that was the only option. And it was sort of what it had led to. Because imagine this, okay. You are feeling disgusting and you are having a very hard time. Maybe your family won't talk to you anymore. Maybe you've run away from your family. You don't want to talk to them. So you're alone, you're isolated. You're out in the conditions and out in just sheer nature, no protection from that. Can't get cleaned up, and on top of that, everybody who walks past you pretends you don't exist.

And so you hardly ever make eye contact with another person. When Sam and I first got back from the streets, I could not sit across the table from someone and looked them in the eye When I was talking to them, because for five months we hadn't done that. We hadn't had a conversation. Even when we were walking together, we would walk side by side and often look at the ground because there's just no one who's willing to embrace us and say that. Every now and then though, when a person would walk past and actually engage us, it said so much. It happened so infrequently, it changed the entire day. For a person to stop where they're going. And look at us, look us in the eye and even just by their actions, say, you're a human being made in the image of God, and I'm going to give you just five seconds, maybe 15, 20, 30 of my day. And by how I interact with you, change the course of your entire day.

Dr. James Dobson: Did you have an objective in dealing with the other people who were on the street? Were you trying to introduce them to Christ? Were you trying to show love to them? What were you trying to do on their behalf? Was it all an experiment, or were you out there representing the Lord?

Mike Yankoski: It's amazing. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:20, "I try and find a common ground with everyone so that I can preach the gospel of Jesus Christ." Goes on to say, "To the Jew, I become like the Jew. To the Gentile, I become like the Gentile." We didn't go out with a specific evangelistic intention. We didn't go out saying we want to bring 50 or 100 people to Christ. It was astounding though, how the Lord used us just in those circumstances, worked through us to engage different people and have conversations about the Lord. I remember one that in Portland, it was raining and we went underneath of a bridge in order to escape the rain and so did quite a few other homeless men. And underneath of that bridge started playing the guitar. And whenever we were panhandling and whenever we played the guitar, we always played Christian music, worship music.

And during the course of sitting underneath of that bridge, got into a conversation with the guy we were sitting next to. As we played a Christian song. He started smoking marijuana, started doing some other drugs as well and offered them to us. And because we declined, because we said, "We don't drink, we don't smoke. We don't do any of that stuff. We don't do drugs." He said, "Well, who are you? Why are you doing this? What are you about? Why wouldn't you engage in this stuff? You want to forget the rain and just not worry about it for a while?"

And we said, "Well, we don't believe that the Lord wants us to do that. He wants us to be fully engaged in what's going on in the world around us." And he said, "So you mean you're Christians?" He was absolutely taken aback by that. And we said, "Yeah." And started continuing playing the music that we were playing. And he actually wanted to play, learned to play the songs that we were playing. And so just through that, through music and through just being there in that place, God used that to touch this guy's life. It's amazing when we as Christians live and act as we're supposed to in this world. God uses that for evangelism. And we saw that on the streets in Portland.

Dr. James Dobson: Were you ever really frightened?

Mike Yankoski: There was a time in San Francisco, actually, when we were pretty close to some severe situation. We had gathered in the front of Golden Gate Park when we first got into the city, and there were two different gangs who actually started to have a brawl. And we watched the leaders begin to go at it and words become very heated using a lot of profanities and getting pretty angry with one another. And then one of the leaders actually just full on decked the other leader. And what happened was about 40 other men and women just came running and started just a huge gang fight in the center of the park.

And there was one guy who was lifted up and being pulled by the two different groups. One group was trying to drag him down into the ... deeper into the park so that they could just fight without the police possibly seeing it on the street. And the other group pulling on his feet were his friends trying to keep him from almost certain death. And as people just kicking him in the stomach and in the ribs, and I'm sure he had several broken ribs and just started to bleed pretty badly. And so this was a volatile place.

Dr. James Dobson: Life is cheap on the streets, isn't it?

Mike Yankoski: Absolutely. It is, unfortunately.

Dr. James Dobson: Well, I sure want to hear more about that, Mike. You've taken us now to, I think the point at which you had spent two or three months on the road. By that time, you were pretty scruffy and probably pretty hungry and on occasions, as you've said, rather afraid. And I want to take this a step further and hear how your story unfolded. Just tell us before we leave, did you ever want to bail out? Did you ever think about quitting? When you'd been there for a few months, did you ever think to yourself, "Well, I've now learned what I needed to learn. I think I need to go back to college. I need to go see my mom and dad. I need to shower, and I need to get a job." Did those thoughts go through your head at that point?

Mike Yankoski: Absolutely. There was one night we were just drenched in a rainstorm that had hit us and woke up at about 4:00 in the morning covered in mud, because we'd been sleeping in a lower area and just as the drainage came, just swept over us and we were just woke up and utter disbelief. And the realization at that moment we could get out of here really quickly if we wanted to. And yeah, want to shower, want to go back to school, I'll sit through the tests. I'll sit through the class. But I believe that the Lord called us to go out there for that time and through His strength, not our own by any means, said, yeah, we can continue on this. I think we are supposed to even though we want to bail out. We want to get out of this by His grace. We were able to continue on.

Dr. James Dobson: You never went home during that time?

Mike Yankoski: Briefly in between some of the cities, we would stop in order to meet with our board of advisors and have them check up on us and make sure we were all right, but not for a long period of time by no means.

Dr. James Dobson: And what our folks have been hearing if they tuned in late was a young man who at that time was 20 and decided to go find out what homeless people experience, what they live like, how do they cope and how to help them, how to minister to them. That's really what you wound up wanting to do. Wasn't it?

Mike Yankoski: That's correct.

Dr. James Dobson: And you had some very dramatic experiences, and we're going to hear about that next time. Thank you for doing this. Thank you for coming and telling us about it. And I admire you, and you don't look nearly as scary today as you did then. We're going to talk about some plans that you have, but I'll save that for next time. Thanks for being with us, Mike.

Mike Yankoski: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

Roger Marsh: What incredible stories from our guest, Mike Yankoski on today's edition of Dr. James Dobson's Family Talk. And that's just the beginning. Make sure you listen again tomorrow to hear the balance of Dr. Dobson's conversation with Mike. In the meantime, if you missed any of today's program or if you'd like to find a copy of Mike's book called Under the Overpass, visit our broadcast page at That's And while you're with us online, make sure that you're also following Dr. James Dobson's Family Talk on Facebook.

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