Ministering to Homeless Youth

By Guest Contributor September 22, 2015

By Danielle Rhodes

I want to tell you the story of a man I once knew—let’s call him Joseph. I first met Joseph when he was a young man in his mid 20s. Joseph was polite, a man of few words. He never spoke about his past. Silently, I worried about him: How could someone so gentle maneuver the cold, aggressive world of the streets?

Then, one day he caught me by surprise. Our typically shallow conversation transformed into a glimpse into his life.

Joseph told me that, back in 2005, he lived in a youth home in New Orleans. It was the only time he could remember feeling like he belonged, like he had a home. Before the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Joseph’s home was evacuated. He was placed on a plane and sent to California, alone. When his plane landed, no one arrived to meet him. Amidst the chaos, he was forgotten. He had been on his own ever since.

We cannot anticipate a person’s story. When I lived in Colorado, I had the amazing privilege of working at a shelter for the homeless and those in other desperate circumstances. Over the years, I noticed a heartbreaking trend. The each year I worked there, we received more young men and women who had been turned away from overcrowded youth shelters than the last. The homeless teenage population is growing at an alarming rate. Some—those looking for a place to fit in—might find their way into your student ministry. How can you best minister to homeless youth?

Avoid labels.

As a mental health therapist, I hate diagnosing people, though it’s often necessary. Negative connotations inevitably arise when someone is diagnosed with a psychological disorder.

When working with the homeless, you are likely to encounter a myriad of mental health issues. Although most adults keep these diagnoses to themselves, students tend to wrap these labels around themselves like protective cloaks. One young lady told me she couldn’t get along with anyone because she was diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder with homicidal tendency—she was 14 at the time of her diagnoses. Before her diagnosis, she was a student struggling to get along with her foster siblings and adjust to a new school. Afterward, her life was marked by one violent encounter after another.

I cannot overstate the importance of helping students rid themselves of negative labels. Remind them that they are not their struggle! God created each of them in his own image and called them very good. There is so much more to them than anger issues, the tendency to run away, or the abuses they’ve suffered.

Think outside the box.

In 1 Corinthians 9:19, 22–23, Paul says, “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. … To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things for all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”

“The homeless teenage population is growing at an alarming rate.”

When working with students struggling with homelessness, think outside your normal ministry box. Traditional discipleship techniques may not work. When I started mentoring students at a small school in Nebraska, I immediately found myself ministering to a group of students who had embraced a “gothic” persona. On the surface, I had absolutely nothing in common with them. But the more I listened to them, the more I discovered their passions—doorways I could use to connect with them. They taught me about goth culture, and I taught them about the kingdom of God. Because of my interest in their lives, they felt valued and accepted, and the walls around them began to crumble.

Homeless youth come from a culture many youth workers don’t understand. The discipleship strategies you use with other students may not work well for those experiencing homelessness. But they have the same needs as anyone in your ministry. They want to be loved. They want to be heard. And they want someone to take an interest in their unique situations and struggles.

Some things take time, but don’t take time for granted.

Slowly but surely, the walls these teens have built up will fall—but it won’t happen all at once. On the streets, youth have to be extra vigilant. They can’t afford to trust many people. They believe everyone has an agenda; no one is nice just to be nice. Like many of today’s students, homeless youth would rather be anywhere other than a church building.

So how do we minister to this group? Easy: go to them. Never underestimate the power of your presence. These students aren’t the most reliable when it comes to making plans and following through. Embrace this! Treat every moment you have with them as if it were your last (while challenging them to be more reliable as you would with any other student). As quickly as they fall into your life, they can fall right back out. When ministering to such a transient group, get creative in the ways you stay connected and disciple. Use social networking and already established community events—like soup kitchens—as meeting forums.

Teenagers will be teenagers. Like any other students, homeless youth want (and need) to proclaim their independence. They relish opportunities to assert themselves and provide leadership to others. Find ways to include them in important roles where they can succeed or safely fail. When they drop the ball or prove to be unreliable, don’t give up on them. Use those opportunities to show your commitment to them.

CC Image courtesy Hernán Piñera on Flickr.

About the Author

Guest Contributor

The LeaderTreks Blog is proud to share the hard-earned wisdom of student ministry leaders from many different backgrounds and professions. From time to time, we will feature guest blog posts from writers other than our regular contributors. We include these posts to provide additional perspectives and insight that we’re sure will help develop you and your ministry…  Read More