Street Life Ministries

verend David Van Fleet


          Street Life Ministries operates one of several vans that provide free meals at Tompkins Square. Each Tuesday they park their mobile kitchen in front of 7th Street as a long line stretches along the fence. The sound of contemporary Christian music fills the air, and senior citizens from local group homes sit down on folding chairs. As food is served from the van, Reverend David circulates on the sidewalk and talks to the regulars. Many of my subjects have spoken to him for hours, while others merely know his face. Just about all of them have eaten from the van.

           When I was twenty-two years old, cocaine had taken over my life. I was living in Jersey, and I used to come into New York on the weekends to score. I'd do a lot of it myself and then sell the rest of it to support my habit. I was violent and angry, and I wasn't going anywhere. My personal relationships didn't mean anything.

           I had been brought up in the church, but it didn't seem real. I knew that there were a lot of people who were praying for me to stop this destructive lifestyle, but I wasn't doing anything about it. Then, on the night of July 12th, 1980 the Lord came into my room and revealed his presence. I could hear his voice just like I'm talking to you right now. He showed me that there really was a God, and that He was the only one who could change my life and take away that emptiness. When I decided to give my life to Him, it was like a hundred pounds of weight taken off my back, and I began to really live for the first time in twenty-two years. It was like the Book of Acts Chapter Nine, when Saul fell off his horse and the Lord revealed Himself.

           It was a total turning point, instantaneous deliverance. There was no more drinking, there was no more freebase. I didn't even need to go to rehab. As soon as the spirit entered me, I started working at a ministry called The Way Home. We started a coffee house where young people could come together in the Lord. As I grew stronger in my faith, I started doing drug abuse talks at a lot of the same schools that I had been thrown out of.

         For nine years I worked for Youth With a Mission. We used to go to Tompkins Square Park every Monday to do outreach. Back in the days of Tent City, the park was packed with homeless people. Not only were they hungry for food, they were also hungry for the Word. Sometimes I'd take my family down here on a Saturday to get to know the people. Back then there was a real solid sense of community in the park, and it made it easier for people to communicate. Ever since Mayor Dinkins enforced the curfew to drive homeless people out of the park, a lot of them have been dispersed into the outer boroughs or into more inconspicuous places like under bridges, but there's still a large amount of homeless and low-income people in the area who need help.

          In 1997 I felt a calling to start Street Life Ministries. We applied as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation, and then we started praying that God would send us people to come serve with us. At first it was just my wife and I, but gradually more people became involved. One of our biggest prayers was answered when someone decided to donate a van. By that time I knew that as long as we persevered, His grace would see that it all came together.

           The purpose of Street Life Ministries is to provide a holistic range of services to people in need throughout the city. Our most basic function is to provide food, clothing, and personal care items for people who have no other means of obtaining them. A lot of people just want to come and eat. That's fine, but for those that really want to get their life back together, we're there to refer them on the spot for that type of help. Proper information is the key for these people to utilize the available resources.

           We're connected to hundreds of the city agencies, both Christian and non-Christian. If somebody needs a detox, we can get them a detox. If somebody wants to do a long-term rehab, we're connected with programs both inside and outside of the city. Our database is filled with agencies that can provide legal aide, shelters, AIDS hospices, housing and SSI applicationsany one of a hundred things. As long as people want the help, we can get them connectedbut it's not always easy. One of the biggest issues that we have is keeping families together. We can't always do that, because there might be too many kids, or mom and dad might not be legally married. The second you try to put them in the system, they split them up.

          The hardest areas to secure services are the ones that are most crucial. The worst is housing. In the past four years, the amount of shelter available has drastically decreased. Under the Giuliani administration, eighty percent of the funding for homeless housing was cut. The shelter programs that do receive funding consist mostly of warehouse type open spaces filled with beds. We have a hard time placing people in that type of situation, because they think that they're safer sleeping in the street. Usually, I think they're right.

           The other difficult area to secure services is job placement. Even if the guys really want help, they don't have a phone, and they don't have an address. They don't have a good resume. Some of these guys write a little, some of them don't. Even if we can get them really nice suits, they have a hard time making a positive impression.

           How do you receive funding?

          We receive a small grant from the United Way to help pay for the cost of food. Other than that, the rest of our funding has to come from private donations. None of our employees receive a salary, so we rely exclusively on volunteers. A lot of the people power comes from various church groups from around the country who stay with us for a few weeks at a time.

         One of the most frustrating aspects of running a Christian non-profit is that due to the separation of church and state, we can't receive any money from the government. I'm not the type of person who likes to point fingers, but the government doesn't make solid business decisions about where they spend their money. The number-one example of that are methadone treatment programs. They just switch one drug for another. We pay billions of dollars to keep people high, and believe me, they are high. We're not really helping them to change.

          In order to truly rehabilitate people you need to address their spiritual needs as well as their physical needs. The answers that the government gives can't help you. You can't get what you need through psychoanalysis. That won't change your heart. Only the Lord can do that. God has made it very clear that our sins have separated us from Himbut through all our wickedness he still loves us, enough that he sent his only son to die on the cross. He's the only one who can take that weight from your soul. Once the soul has been rescued, it gives you some motivation. You begin to think different and act different, and pretty soon you're a new person. That's why Christian programs are so much more successful than non-Christian programs. It's a fact.

          You take a program like Teen Challenge, a Christian-based rehabilitation program. Their success rate is so far superior to anything the government will ever have. Five years after a person has been through that program, eighty-four percent of them are still drug free and living productive lives. Some government programs for the same type of abuse, heroin especially, have been listed as having a three-percent cure rate after five years. Yet we'll spend billions to push these programs.

         The biggest irony in the situation is that that we offer our services to people regardless of their religious beliefs. We're not fire-and-brimstone crusaders standing there with a megaphone trying to get notches on our belt for converts. People don't want to be preached at. When I was down and out, I knew that I was filled with sin. I didn't need to be told that. We preach through our actions. It's like the old adage, "Nobody cares how much you know. They want to know how much you care." People want to know, "Will you love me in the midst of my sin, my addiction?" When people are ready and open and seriously looking for answers, they're going to ask how they can change. We'll tell them.

          There's some new legislation going through the State Legislature about Faith Based Initiatives. That's a step in the right direction, but I don't know if I'll ever be able to see any of that money. We're just a tiny little organization. If we had some pull we might be able to do better, but the bottom line is that our trust is in God, and he'll get us the stuff that we need.

          What do you see in the future of Street Life Ministries?

          Street Life will continue to grow. I've got my eye on another truck. We just need to raise some money. We want it to be a complete mobile kitchen with a counseling area in the front. We also have a long-range plan of opening our own shelter with forty or fifty beds. It would be great to take people directly off the street and start the process to get them their own Section 8 housing. I'd particularly like to focus on providing services to house entire families in a safe environment. That would take some serious funding, so for now that's just a dream.

           Street Life Ministries also provides food relief in other areas throughout New York City. Last September they played an instrumental role in providing materials and emotional support for the workers at Ground Zero. As winter of 2002 approaches they are in desperate need of coats. For more information you can visit their website at If you wish to make a donation you can mail a check made out to Street Life Ministries, 154-11 Ash Avenue Flushing, NY 11355.



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