In a room at the Austin Congregational Church, Terry Cole talks with 10 young adults. They’ve come to see Cole, but also to eat.
When Cole was laid off of his job as an engineer in 2008, he decided to dedicate his life to rehabilitating young people living on the street around UT. By his account, homeless youth have called the West Campus neighborhood near Guadalupe Street known as "the Drag" home since at least the 1970s.
Every Tuesday, Cole holds court at the Congregational Church, where he invites young homeless people from 18 to 30 years old to come eat. His organization, Street Youth Ministry, serves homeless youth through events held in churches around UT.
According to Cole, the youth he serves have always been drawn to the neighborhood around the university for the same reason other young people are.
“Young people like to hang out with young people. That’s just a universal fact,” Cole said. “They are separating from parents and they want to hang out with each other, and the center of young people in Austin is undeniably the 40 Acres.”
Jerome Ray, a client of Street Youth Ministry, is one of these young people. He says he likes to hang out with students at the residential co-ops in the neighborhood. But, when he hits the drag, he is treated differently than the students he befriends.
“Two weeks ago I went into Medici Café,” Ray said. “And, when I walked in the guy was like, ‘Hey, you need to buy something.’ And I was like, ‘Do you talk like that to all your customers, or is it just because my pants are dirty? It’s just because my pants are dirty, huh?’”
Cole says the police also treat homeless youth differently. Ever since the murder of UT student Haruka Weiser by a young homeless person last spring, Cole says the neighborhood has been hostile toward his clients, as well as his ministry.
“Around the first of March in 2016, the West Campus neighborhood united in a very solid message that said, ‘We are getting rid of homeless young people’” he said. “It was actually prior to the murder.”
Cole says he’s seen the number of homeless youth in the neighborhood decrease by half of what it was in 2015, when it spiked due to people in the area making and using the drug K2 on the street.
“The community has demanded the presence of the police, and it has without question improved the safety on the street. Unless you’re a young homeless person looking for services, then they feel pretty unsafe right now,” Cole said.
Cole is focused on rebuilding trust between homeless youth and the West Campus community. He encouraged his clients to come up with a way to give back to the neighborhood, and they decided to “own” the alley behind AT&T and Jamba Juice on the drag.
“And by ‘own’ they mean they want to document its deplorable condition and make it better,” he said. “And they want to go to business owners and say, ‘Look, we’re doing this and we’re going to keep doing this. We’re part of your neighborhood, and we’re not all bad.’”
Street Youth Ministry will move into its first brick and mortar location at the corner of San Antonio and 23rd Street in January. The space is currently a drop-in clinic for homeless youth operated by LifeWorks, which lost funding for the space this year.
“There are seven rooms in the space, and I’m partnering with different organizations – mostly churches, but they don’t have to be – to outfit the rooms with supplies for creative self expression, like music and art, and meditation. I think it will become a destination for homeless youth in the neighborhood.”
Cole’s work with homeless youth goes beyond what he calls the “core services” provided by the LifeWorks clinic – some of which Street Youth Ministry will continue to provide when they move into the location. Cole specializes in what he calls “relationship services”, working with his clients to help them achieve stability and get off the streets permanently.
“I think it’s just really important that people realize there’s a positive outcome here,” he said. “They don’t become career homeless people, and it’s why they need special help, and it’s why we’re here.”
Ultimately, Cole hopes to change the perception of street youth around UT. He says that the majority of the youth he works with get off the street within a year and half of deciding to do so.