Oct 3, 2013

A View From The Outside

We were recently interviewed by Grant Gordon, a journalism student at The University of Texas at Austin. Below is an article he wrote. The article does not necessarily represent the views of Street Youth Ministries. We are sharing the article because it shows how easily it is to view the Drag as a battleground between the homeless population and others. SYM seeks to see a strong community on the Drag that includes the homeless young adults, who are also part of the neighborhood. 
We'd love to know your thoughts!

September 30, 2013

Street Ministry Youth Protects Local Homeless

AUSTIN - Local homeless people on the western edge of the University of Texas campus are being driven away from the city, and Street Ministry Youth leader Terry Cole is trying to help them.

Cole is the sole employee of the volunteer-driven organization, which serves nearly 100 homeless youths weekly on the area known as “the drag.”  He fears that due to changes recently made by University and city officials, the homeless will be forced to leave their current places of residence.

“The student government and the city recently removed all public water fountains from west campus intentionally to drive out the homeless,” Cole said.  “They made a desert to try to push them away.”

Along with the water fountains, Cole is also worried by the lack of public restrooms in west campus.  He believes the city officials are “not interested in creating more public restrooms,” but rather they “just want the homeless to leave.”

Street Youth Ministry’s mission statement is “To know, love, and serve street dependent young people,” but the current state of homeless relations in Austin is not helping Cole’s cause.

“We are in an unfriendly place right now because there is a lot of change on the drag,” he said.  “There’s a lot of stress, with mom and pop stores closing down and being replaced by national chains.”

The Street Youth Ministry helps the homeless by finding specific needs for each homeless youth on the drag and eliciting from the community to serve them.  Sometimes, however, these men and women have needs far more significant than simple material items.

“They want somebody to listen to them.  Somebody to talk to.  They don’t want to be invisible anymore,” said Cole, who personally visits and gets to know several street-dependent youths each day.

One such youth is a man who asked, for the purposes of this article, to be referred to as Kool-Aid.  Kool-Aid takes residence between the Chipotle and the CVS Pharmacy on 22nd and Guadalupe.  He has been living on the drag for two years, often sleeping in nearby parking garages.

Kool-Aid ended up in his current position by “making ignorant decisions” and “hanging around the wrong crowd,” but today he holds no grudges.  He never takes it personally when he is ignored by those who pass by.

“I understand it.  Everyone’s going through a different struggle every day,” Kool-Aid said.  I try to see where they’re coming from too.”

Kool-Aid chooses to live in a specific area on the drag because he feels as though he is surrounded by “good people” such as one of the local store owners he has gotten to know, who, according to Kool-Aid, lets him use the restaurant to access the bathroom and get water.

Some of the business owners and vendors in the area have been, at one point, homeless for six months, so some understands the struggles of Kool-Aid and other homeless men alike, and disagree with the city’s quest to rid itself of the homeless.

“Wherever you go, there’s going to be homeless people no matter what,” said one business owner.  “So as long as they’re not bothering anyone, I let them in the store to get food and water.  You never know the circumstances they’re in; it’s not fair to judge all the homeless.”

Not all business owners believe that homeless people cause a threat to civilians, but rather feel as though they just need people around them who care.

“The homeless need people to give them encouragement, and if I can be that person, then I’m going to be that person.”

Cole feels “it’s really good for all of us” when stores allow the homeless to use their restrooms.  But at the same time, he understands the risks involved.

“It’s tough because there are drug users among the homeless.  About 25 percent of them use hard drugs, and a bathroom can be a safe place to do that.”

But Cole doesn’t believe that the homeless cause a safety threat to civilians.  Regarding the reputation of the dangerous homeless man, he called it “a pretty huge myth.”

Kool-Aid is just one example of the many who have been touched by Street Youth Ministry.  One objective of the foundation is to help the homeless not only materially, but spiritually as well.

“Because we are a Christian group, faith matters.  We ask them if they want to talk about faith, but we don’t force it,” Cole said.  “We discover what they want in life.”

Cole and his almost 100 yearly volunteers (half of whom are students) lend a listening ear and display a welcoming attitude to the homeless people, serving as a beacon of light and hope in their otherwise often bleak lives.

As the city tries to push the homeless away, Cole knows that now is the time they need him most.