Down on the Drag
Austin’s real slackers are the roving bands of homeless kids near the University of Texas campus: They’ve got nothing to do, nowhere to go, and almost no hope of getting off the streets.
Photographs by Jana Birchum are not available online.
NEAR DUSK ON A BEAUTIFUL DAY LAST May, a curious assortment of kids gathered at the front stoop of a Baptist church on the Drag, the stretch of Guadalupe Street in Austin that borders the University of Texas campus. They ranged in age from 16 to 22, and most of them wore tattered, stitched-together rags, had pierced lips, noses, and nipples, and sported colorful tattoos and mohawks. Some were from Austin; others had come from places like Orlando, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles. At the moment, though, everyone one of them was homeless. To my right, a kid named Frank, who had been shot in the leg in a drive-by in Memphis the week before, jokingly asked a street girl named Naomi if she could spare any change. Without a word, she spat into her hand and wiped it on his. Near dark, I rose to leave, and Tina, a girl I’d been talking to, looked up at me and asked, “Where are you going?” When I realized that she though I was homeless too, I hedged. I didn’t want to tell her that I was going home.
I had become interested in street kids six months earlier, when I discovered a group of them living in a shed in my back yard. The shed seem to be a popular spot—not long after one group would be kicked out by me, my landlord, or the police, another would move in. Photographer Jana Birchum, a friend of mine, had already begun to document the lives of the street kids on film, and the two of us delved into a strange and fascinating subculture. I learned that the kids call themselves gutter punks and travel in a migratory circuit around the nation, many stopping in Austin because of the warm climate and relatively liberal populace. They might stay in town anywhere from a few days to several months at a time. (Austin’s gutter punk population typically swells in January as teens gather for their traditional trek to New Orleans’ Mardi Gras celebration.) They are an oddly diverse group: As each successive clan was banished from the shed, I was surprised to find not only caches of needles and condoms and empty beer cans but also tools, books, certificates from trade school courses, and even one kid’s graduate equivalency diploma.
The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that there are anywhere from 300,000 to 500,000 kids homeless in America on any given night. In Austin, over the past three years nearly 3,000 have walked through the doors of Project PHASE (Peer HIV AIDS Support and Education, or alternately, Peer HIV AIDS Sexuality Education), an organization located on the Drag that provides some meals and services to homeless youth. Their prospects on the streets are not promising: Oscar Lopez, who founded PHASE in 1993, says that one third will kill themselves, overdose on drugs, or otherwise die violently. And, he adds, more than half of the kids routinely have unprotected sex or share needles; contracting HIV is “just a matter of time for a lot of them.” Lopez has seen a steady increase in their numbers during his tenure with PHASE, and despite Austin’s ban on public camping, he believes they will continue to come.
Their bleak outlook doesn’t make helping them any easier. “There’s a huge trust factor with adults,” Lopez told me. “Many of these young people have been abused physically, sexually, emotionally—neglected—you name it. And to say to them, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m another adult and I’m going to help you’—why should they believe you?” The gutter punks are surprisingly supportive of each other, though, and it is their tendency to move in groups, perhaps even more than their distinctive appearance, that makes them so intimidating. In getting to know and eighteen-year-old girl named Vicki, I had to work my way through not only her own cautious attitude but also layers of protective friends and other members other “tribe.”
I spent many days simply hanging out with Vicki and her friends as they moved through the blur of their daily routines. They had nothing to do but stroll up and down the Drag. Walking with a street punk could be an infuriating experience: Time was essentially meaningless to them, and at any moment they might break off suddenly to sit for hours in an alley, linger to talk with another kid, or simply drift away without saying good-bye.
None of the kids I talked to had regular jobs. Some qualified for food-stamp cards, which allowed them approximately $115 worth of food each month, but these were often used up in the first week of the month buying food for everyone else. After that, aside from the twice-weekly meals offered by PHASE and other charities, they would dredge food from dumpsters along the Drag. Others tried panhandling, though their requests for change were most often met with obliviousness, which made even this simple pastime frustrating and demoralizing. One day, after dozens of people had walked by without even glancing over at him, a street kid named Nick sarcastically called out, “Thanks—thanks for even acknowledging me.”
With so much time on their hands, it is hardly surprising that many street kids turn to the only other thing in plentiful supply on the streets: drugs. While few gutter punks have the sort of steady income required to maintain a real habit, many of them told me up-front that they shot heroin, smoked crack, or snorted cocaine when they could get it. And I did meet one serious addict, a 22-year-old Austin native named Michelle. When I sat down to talk with her one day on the curb outside Project PHASE, she spoke in a sleepy drawl. Barely able to keep her eyelids from drooping shit, bubbles of drool ballooning from her moth, she muttered, “I’m like one of the walking dead, you know” I wake up in the morning and if I don’t have a shot first thing, I get really sick, puking and shaking. My whole life is centered around that.” To support her $60-a-day heroin habit, she buys a large quantity of heroin from a dealer, keeps some for herself, and sells the remainder along the Drag in $20 pieces, enough for one person to get high. She told me that once, to get a fix, she resorted to prostitution. “I don’t see what the bid deal is,” she said. “Some nights you’re gonna do in anyway; you might as well get paid for it.”
It seem pointless to ask Michelle what her plans ere; she has tried to kick her habit four times. Other street kids have more hope of escaping—a few weeks after I met them, Vicki and two friends found work with the Nomadic Circus, a traveling troupe of performers—but Lopez says the odds are against them. “Even the few that you find that have a dream aren’t always thinking of it realistically,” he told me, “because a lot of the life skills aren’t there. Nobody ever helped them along when they were young.” In fact, according to Lopez, only about one in ten kids will actually get off the street. While some, like Vicki, say the choose this life, others—Michelle among them—will wind up trapped by addiction. “You could write a book about me,” Michelle said. “I’m only twenty-two, but I’ve had more stuff happen to me than people who are forty, I’ll bet.” She mentioned that she had recently tried to kill herself by shooting an entire gram of heroin. “What happened?” I asked, “Nothing,” she said, “I just fell asleep—I woke up the next day and I was high all day. This is my life. This is what I do.” As she spoke, she lifted her eyelids sleepily, indicating the weary drag of the streets.