Nowhere to Go
Young, homeless, and slipping through the cracks
With only a bus ticket and a few personal belongings, Regina Tardy fled North Carolina from her abusive boyfriend at 17 years old. She was heading to Lubbock, Texas, where she had a few distant relatives, but ended up stuck at an Austin-area Greyhound bus station. For a day and a half, she brainstormed how to get a refund and get back on track to Lubbock. Employees at the station were also unsure of what to do, so they called the police, who promptly transported Tardy to the homeless women's shelter.
But Tardy didn't feel safe or comfortable at the shelter. So she left – only a week after arriving – to make it on the streets, alone in an unfamiliar city. "I just started hustling to make money. And I got so caught up in the street that I lost track of my life," she says. Drugs, boosting, panhandling, she did whatever she needed to survive on her own as a young person with no support system.
Now 21, Tardy feels like she knows Austin, and she's tired. She's seen its darkest alleyways, witnessed unimaginable violence, and has drifted in and out of the institutions that have continuously failed to protect her. Tardy spent the majority of her childhood trapped in the foster care system. "I feel like every person I was close to would get adopted. I was so left out. And I think that's why I am the way I am," she says.
For most people, the transition into adulthood is a gradual process. Familial structures, education, and financial support are all key to growing up to live independent and healthy lives. But most homeless youth – defined by the National Coalition for the Homeless as "individuals under the age of 18 who lack parental, foster, or institutional care" – struggle to survive without the networks of support many take for granted.
Tardy "aged out" of foster care, a term used to describe young people who fail to reunite with their families or be placed in a permanent home before reaching adulthood. These young people often leave the system without the resources necessary to thrive on their own. According to the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, more than one in five become homeless after aging out of foster care. Only 58% graduate high school, compared with the 87% of children with families. And one in four is involved with the criminal justice system within two years of leaving foster care.
"One of the things we've seen over the years is the rise in the number of youth on the street who are grownup and aged out of foster care or liberated themselves from foster care," says Susan McDowell, executive director of LifeWorks, a nonprofit dedicated to serving runaway and homeless youth in Central Texas.
Tardy's story is not unlike many other young people who call the streets home in Austin. Whether it is aging out of foster care, or escaping abuse, neglect, or rejection at home, thousands of youth in Texas choose the chaos of the street over enduring painful home lives. However, not much is known about this population. Young homeless adults, ages 18-24, and teenagers are hard to identify. They often do not appear homeless and are more transient than older adult homeless populations. Their needs are also vastly different, and adult shelters can be unsafe and frightening places. In Austin, these youths are invisible, and from foster care, to family systems, to service providers, to the police, have been failed on many fronts, making it difficult to survive.
"It's just a struggle every day. You don't know where you're going to sleep the next day. You don't know where you're going to eat. You don't know what's going to happen to you. You don't know if you're going to wake up. ... Being out here by yourself, you don't know anything," Tardy laments.
"They Look at Us Like We're Not People"
Tucked inside the heart of the Drag, the portion of Guadalupe that runs the western edge of UT-Austin, is LifeWorks. Each year, its Street Outreach program serves nearly 200 homeless youth and young adults, providing food, clothing, and basic health care, along with counseling and other services. Open three days a week for four hours at a time, the drop-in center, located in the basement of the Congregational Church of Austin, is the only program in the city that specifically targets homeless young people.
The surrounding sidewalks and alleyways at the drop-in center also serve as a convening and rest point for many homeless people in the city. In this space, weathered-looking people stretch out on blankets. Some are sleeping and some are booming with laughter or anger. It's a sharp contrast with the rest of West Campus, where students congregate at the many shops, restaurants, and fraternity and sorority houses in the area. Often, when students find themselves on the block where LifeWorks is located, they look up briefly before averting their eyes and crossing the street. "They look at us like we're not people," says Tardy as she stands among her friends.
Tardy has used the drop-in center for five years, and she spends much of her time in the area. She recently used the center to apply for food stamps and begin enrolling in classes at Austin Community College. Eight months ago, she was arrested for violating parole when police found her sleeping under a bridge on Lamar Boulevard. Recently released from jail, she is back among the people she considers family and ready to make a change in her life.
A Rising Police Presence
A significant increase in the adult homeless population in the area is changing the dynamics of 23rd and surrounding streets, according to McDowell. Tension is rising, as public nuisance complaints about aggressive panhandling and sleeping in public spaces – lodged by business owners, concerned parents, and students – have meant a heavier police presence in the area. The rise in cops has also had an impact on the homeless, many of whom say they are often intimidated from using services, or ticketed for hanging out in public spaces.
"We have always worked in fairly close partnership with APD around here to try to balance safety concerns of the neighborhood with the need for youth to get services," McDowell said.
Police Officer Gary Griffin is the district representative for Region 1, an area that includes LifeWorks. He supports patrol officers who ride around in the region, and he also responds to issues other cops cannot or are too busy to handle. "We can't judge how every interaction is going to go with these folks. We'll go out there, we'll be professional, we'll enforce the law, we'll enforce city ordinances. If they decide that they want to be unprofessional about it or they're not happy ... we're just doing what we're basically paid by the citizens of Austin to do, to go out there and enforce the law," Griffin says.
Austin's "No Sit/No Lie" ordinance, enforced on West Campus, East Austin, and Downtown, prohibits sitting or lying on city streets for more than 30 minutes at a time (see "A Closer Look at No Sit/No Lie," below). Officers must give a warning before issuing a citation, which they can then issue on their discretion and typically comes with a fine of $160. The tickets are classified as a Class C misdemeanor, meaning that there can be a penalty of up to $500 and jail time if the fines aren't paid. The ordinance was passed by City Council in 2011, as an update to an existing ordinance, and has resulted in tens of thousands of citations issued, the vast majority of which go unpaid. And with two-thirds of tickets going to the homeless, it disproportionately affects those with little to no resources.
Youth and young adults, in particular, often form family structures that provide a sense of inclusion and belonging. They convene and sleep within this family structure while out on the streets. When they are forced to move, they can also be forced to interact with other groups that may be perceived as a threat, says Laura Poskochil, program director of the Street Outreach program: "That was something multiple [people] expressed feeling. That they were forced into situations where they weren't safe."
Ticketing and arrests can negatively impact the ability to earn money. Coupled with the fact that many job applications require an ID, which is based around providing proof of residence, many young people are entangled in an endless cycle of unemployment. Tardy has been to jail several times, and has struggled to gain employment. One application she filled out was red-flagged because of her recent incarceration. But she also feels that anyone with a "good head on their shoulders can get a job."
Increased police presence also deters some youth from accessing resources at the drop-in center. "There were some officers that were standing essentially right in front of the door to the drop-in center, and that concerned me about youths' ability to come access services, especially new people," Poskochil says. Griffin disagrees: "I don't think we discourage anybody from obtaining services over there," he says. "We do enforce the law and city ordinances."
It can be difficult to define the role of police structures. According to Brian Withrow, a criminal-justice researcher at Texas State University, sometimes society inappropriately broadens the scope of what police can and will do to protect vulnerable populations. "The fact of the matter is a homeless kid has no political power at all. ... Historically, the police have been the most visible agent of the status quo of the government. They're going to do what they're paid to do, and it's to maintain the status quo."
In 2013, LifeWorks surveyed 60 young people who accessed services at the drop-in center. They found that four out of five experienced childhood abuse and neglect. Over half experienced trauma, both physical and sexual, while living on the streets. A quarter identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ). And over two-thirds were in need of clinical assessments, as they exhibited signs of depression. Although these findings correlate with national statistics, APD does not have targeted training to work with this population. "We just have an across-the-board training dealing with anyone we come in contact with," Griffin says. "Our training dealing with the homeless population is the same training that we'll use to deal with somebody that's not homeless – somebody that's at their house in West Austin, East Austin, it doesn't matter."
However, several incidents in Austin involving excessive force against vulnerable populations may suggest a need for what experts call population-specific training. Incidents like one in 2006, in which Griffin was involved: That June, Griffin tried to wake up Joseph Cruz, a man with schizophrenia sleeping at a bus stop. The situation spiraled out of control and Griffin allegedly punched, kicked, and beat the man with his baton. Griffin was fired, then rehired when an independent arbitrator concluded that his actions were "nothing more sinister than gross negligence."
Today, Griffin says: "My past and whatever is put on news media out there, I don't think that has any relevance to homeless populations at all."
Police violence is an issue that Tardy and her peers often witness and experience. In 2013, Tardy's life changed forever when she got into an altercation outside of the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH) shelter with her then-partner. "We were arguing and fighting in the middle of Downtown and that's when the cops came," she begins. Tardy says that when an officer grabbed her, slamming her to the ground in an effort to break up the fight, she snapped and blacked out. The police report of the incident confirms that Tardy was taken to the ground, but not that she was "slammed." According to the report, the officers' actions were in response to Tardy's repeated aggressive behavior toward them. When Tardy came to, she was on the ground, surrounded by police officers. Tardy was charged with assaulting two officers. Although she worked with a case worker to reduce her sentence, she was sent to prison for two and a half years. "Texas Department of Criminal Justice, y'all are supposed to help us, not beat us up, not take away the life we live on the streets," she says. "You're trying to clean up the city to make it look good. If you really wanted to help us, don't arrest us just for sitting on the sidewalk. Put us somewhere where we can actually sleep."
Finding What's Hidden
One rainy October morning, while most people in Austin are sleeping, volunteers convene across the city. They're carrying backpacks filled with flashlights, ponchos, and hygiene kits. They're hoping to identify and survey homeless youth and young adults. The groups spread out, seeking out places that go unnoticed – crevices under parking garages, back corners of commercial establishments, ravines, parks, alleyways – trying to find those who want to stay hidden.
The effort is the direct result of House Bill 679 by Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, to study youth homelessness in Texas. The bill requires the Texas Department of Housing & Community Affairs (TDHCA) to provide information to the Legislature on the number of homeless youth in the state and their specific needs. Youth Count Texas! – TDHCA's resulting initiative – is one of the first in the country to specifically target homeless youth.
"Some communities have been counting youth as part of the Point-in-Time count [a count of sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons on a single night in January] for many years, but those counts are not necessarily effective at counting youth, because youth homelessness looks different than adult homelessness," Christine Gendron, executive director of Texas Network of Youth Services, says via email.
TDHCA contracted with TNOYS for the initiative, who then enlisted the help of LifeWorks and the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO), as those two organizations were already planning to conduct a youth count. In past Austin/Travis County Point-in-Time counts, volunteers have only found 18 youth. But service providers know there are many more.
"These statistics are really critical to drive us into identifying what services we need to come in and demand for our community to ensure that every single person has a safe and stable home, especially our youth," Niki Paul, director of operations at ECHO, tells volunteers at the event training a few days prior.
Housing is what Tardy says she wants most. Though she's currently sharing an apartment with five of her street brothers and sisters, she dreams of having a place of her own where she can escape from the pressures of the outside world. "At the end of the day I want a job, I want to go to college. I want to do normal things, but it's just hard for us because we don't have that support."
For some in the city, the recent rain was a welcome respite from weeks of drought. For Tardy, it is a reminder of her life on the street and the lives of her friends. "With the rain this past weekend, I felt so bad. Maybe I should just sleep outside," she wonders, while sitting inside the apartment with her street family.
She recounts a time when she slept under a bridge near the Brackenridge emergency center during a heavy rainstorm. She was flooded out of her sleeping area as water rushed through the tunnel under the bridge. Although she found somewhere new to stay that night, her family was still worried. "[My family] spent four hours looking for me before they realized I was at the second sleeping spot."
Her connection to other street people is palpable. To Tardy, most people in Austin don't care about homeless youth. There are not enough resources, and young people are suffering. She hopes that one day, when she escapes the lifestyle, she can give back.
"If I was ever to get out, I would probably be a missionary," she says. "I know what it feels like. It's kind of weird, coming out of the ghetto to become a missionary. But I really want to be able to share my life with someone. I know that the struggle is real, and I know that at the end of the day it's going to be okay."
Resources for Homeless Youth
ARCH-Reserved Bed, 500 E. Seventh, www.frontsteps.org/what-we-do/arch, 512/305-4100
Caritas, 611 Neches, www.caritasofaustin.org, 512/472-4135
LifeWorks-Street Outreach, 408 W. 23rd, www.lifeworksaustin.org, 512/735-2300