Drifting on the drag

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"Want to help me make love on the sidewalk?” Sid, a 20-year-old transient, asks as he spells out L-O-V-E in silver change on the pavement.

Sid sits outside the University Federal Credit Union on Guadalupe Street. His feet are bare and covered in black dirt. He smiles a crooked smile, his teeth chipped and yellowed.

Unlike many of his transient peers, Sid did not escape an abusive home in search of freedom — he was born into a life of transience. Born to homeless parents, Sid traveled the country with them for 15 years before deciding to forge his own path.

“They said East, and I said West, and we parted ways. I’ve been on my own ever since,” Sid said. “I don’t call it homelessness. I call it houselessness. I have many homes. I get money from people, but I don’t depend on anyone but myself.”

Street-dependent youth like Sid have limited access to services, but many of them get help from LifeWorks, a program that helps street youth aged 16 to 23 transition to a sedentary life. Will Hancock, the street outreach program coordinator for LifeWorks, said 18 year olds transitioning out of foster care and young people who have made a lifestyle of homelessness make up more than 600 LifeWorks clients each year.

“It’s a high-risk lifestyle, with exposure to alcohol, drugs, violence and the police, but they’re smart and savvy, and they learn how to survive on the street,” Hancock said.

Hancock said 15 years ago, when Austin was smaller and LifeWorks was just beginning, the sentiments on Guadalupe Street were more friendly to transient youth.

“There was a little hippie culture on the Drag. Now big business has moved through and is trying to move homelessness out of the picture,” Hancock said.

The program’s drop-in services available to street youth are centered in the basement of the University Baptist Church on Guadalupe Street. Hancock said the program is situated there to bring the services closer to the street youth but that the police presence is now pushing the youth out of the area.

“They have to enforce these new ordinances that you can’t panhandle, can’t sit or can’t camp,” Hancock said. “The businesses and UT are the powers driving these kids away. They’d like to just pretend there aren’t homeless people.”

In March, the UT Police Department issued 24 criminal trespass warnings on the UT campus to street youth, and the Austin Police Department issued 10. UTPD officer Darrell Halstead said students are well-protected from those individuals outside of the University system that they come in contact with on UT property.

“I’ve been out here for 24 years. I haven’t seen our department or the University of Texas change the way it deals with, handles or addresses the homeless population in or around the campus,” Halstead said. “We have rules for those that use the facilities.”

Social work graduate student Tiffany Ryan said the temperament has changed towards transient youth in Austin.

“It’s normally been true that March sees a large increase of street youth in Austin, but we haven’t seen that the past two to three years,” Ryan said. “South By Southwest, for instance, draws street youth because it brings in a lot of money for these kids with all the people in town. But that wasn’t really the case at all this year.”

Ryan conducts research on transient youth through the University and LifeWorks. She describes the age group that she works with, 18 to 23, as in need of particular attention.

“The age group I work with is not comfortable using adult services like Salvation Army or [the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless],” Ryan said. “If you’re under 18 and you go to a shelter, you’re required by law to contact police and parents. It’s a really minimal amount of support that those kids get.”

Sid said he is not tired of the traveling lifestyle. In fact, he said he loves it.

“Try it for a year. You’ll be surprised by what you find out,” he said.


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