Helping young people living on the edge
An Indianapolis ministry offers stability and the love of God
INDIANAPOLIS—Her father is in prison. Her mother fights addiction to drugs and alcohol. She’s lived with relatives in Indianapolis from time to time, and she struggles with some of her mother’s challenges. She’s found a job, but she needs a shower and some clean clothes.
The young woman goes to Outreach Inc. and gets the shower and clothes. She’ll likely come back for more help.
This young woman is not a one actual person but a composite of the kind of homeless teens who have come to Outreach.
Twenty years ago, Eric Howard started learning lessons on how to help these young people living on the edge. The lessons may seem obvious, but they are a challenge to practice with teens without a stable home:Homeless teens need a safe and healthy community. They need much love, but authentic love, with accountability and boundaries. They need GOAL (graduation, occupation, address or place to live, and lifestyle) to finish school and go on to college or skills training for employment.
Howard and his staff won a Jefferson Award for civic service in Indianapolis this year. They also are celebrating a $3.3 million campaign to build a new facility near the old house they’ve used for years on the east side of the city.
Howard’s crusade to help homeless teens could have been a lonely one. “He had this long hair and beard and T-shirt and blue jeans,” said a friend, Tim Streett. “He had this crazy idea to pass out sandwiches and water to homeless teens from the trunk of his old car.”
That’s how he started in 1996, idealistically wanting to help young people who were homeless due to one tragedy after another in their families. Dad might be gone from the family. Mom has problems. Relatives sometimes would help for a short time. From his own conversion to Christ in his early 20s, Howard thought that faith in Christ could be an effective answer for these young people. Yet he knew they needed much more than a weekly sermon. Not many books had been written on the subject. Howard read a report on the topic and was surprised that so many teens were bouncing from place to place or looking for shelter and love in the wrong places.
Howard wasn’t shy about asking for help. He met a lawyer, Bob Grand, and showed him his water bottles and sandwich operation.
“I had no idea who he really was,” Howard said. Grand helped with legal advice for teens in trouble, joined the board, and assisted with fund-raising. Later, Howard realized Grand was one of Indiana’s most influential Republicans, as a fund-raiser, supporter of key candidates behind the scenes, and the boss of a large law firm. A former chief of staff to a governor, Grand knew the mayor, the governor, and other influential people.
Howard still dresses casually, in blue jeans with an Indiana 1816 cap, honoring the state’s 200th year. His hair is short. He retains that capacity to connect with influential people and down-and-out homeless teens, sometimes in the same day. Some dedicated urban missionaries have trouble relating to successful business leaders, perhaps because they live in such a different culture day by day. Other inner city ministry leaders have big charismatic personalities and seem gifted enough to do so much of the work by themselves.
Howard knows his own limits.
“I don’t look at myself as a great leader,” he said. “I recognize my own brokenness. I’m not linear in my thought. I am not a great communicator. There are people a lot brighter than I am. There are people who have mastered principles of leadership better than I have.”
Before he came to Christ at age 20, Howard was a fairly typical business major at Indiana University–Purdue University at Indianapolis. He had grown up in the city’s largest Presbyterian Church, Second Presbyterian, where Henry Ward Beecher, the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, was pastor in the mid-19th century.
“I wanted to make money and succeed,” Howard said. “I could live my life the way I wanted.”
Now he seeks a balance of the commands of Micah 6:8: Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. “We don’t look at our young people as projects but as relationships, to help build their capacity,” he said.
As they try to keep track of about 350 teens a year—more young women than men—Howard and his small staff of 15 often talk about the importance of relationships as they try to be the family these young people have been missing. The ministry works with a $1.2 million budget, with the bulk of the financial support coming from individuals, as well as some churches and foundations and is bolstered by assistance from almost 100 volunteers.
Howard wants these young people to know the love of Christ, not so much in sermon format but through the love and accountability they can find through Outreach Inc.
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