AUSTIN - Mayor Steve Adler and many in the city of Austin have focused on getting the homeless off the streets and into housing. For many of the young adults in our area, this transition can be difficult to handle, which is why an outlet in Austin is providing something unique and vital for the homeless.
Terry Cole is a native-born Texan and attended Texas A&M for electrical engineering. This was his career until 2008, when he was laid off from his job.
"Along the way, I started becoming aware that I had interests in evangelism and mission work," Cole said.
While he held his different electrical engineering positions, Cole had done volunteer work with some of the churches he attended. In 2003, he started to devote some of his free to time to working with young adults who were homeless.
"There were these homeless people who were young and kind of had no one to tell them the gospel story," Cole said.
So after losing his job, Cole decided to make his volunteer work his new career. He created Street Youth Ministry of Austin in 2008, an organization focused on giving homeless people between the ages of 18-30 a place to get what they need.
"We are a faith-based ministry but more than that, we are faith active," Cole said. "Not everything we do is in-your-face faith active. It's all voluntary. We don't make anybody do anything."
Christopher Willemsen was born and raised in Austin, before finding himself in a difficult situation as he entered adulthood.
"Around 18-years-old, I started couch-surfing and was homeless," Willemsen said. "I had a bad background and winded up slipping out on the streets. I had to deal with the drugs or the alcohol every single day."
He is a much different person today, as he is not only involved with Street Youth Ministry but another local ministry -- LifeWorks -- as well.
"In here, it's real," Willemsen said. "It's almost like a reality check to where in some groups or meetings, you can't open up the way that we open up here."
Street Youth Ministry is also much different than when it started. For the first eight years of its existence, this ministry bounced around from church to church, meeting at whatever location would take them.
"We were like a pop-up ministry," Cole said. "It was really hard for our clients to find us and it was a real nightmare to volunteer for us."
Marissa Bostick started working as an associate missionary for Street Youth Ministry around the time a change came for this ministry -- a permanent location. The Congregational Church of Austin has allowed Cole's group to meet during the week in the church's basement.
"This is a safe place where anyone can come," Bostick said. "There's no obligations. We don't have an agenda. We don't want to force you to do anything. We just want them to come and say, 'Hey, we're all here together.'"
When the homeless come throughout the week, Cole's ministry provides many different types of outlets. While some days they will have a Bible study, other days are solely focused on giving people a place for conversation. The basement also has an area of used clothes, books and other items for anyone to take if they need it. There are also couches if someone needs to get some sleep while there is almost always food available in the kitchen.
"Whatever you need, we're just here to help," Bostick said. "Obviously, if you're trying to teach someone about God, they're not going to be listening if they're hungry. It's about taking care of all their needs."
James Benson has been going to this ministry for about a year now, as he moved to Austin from Birmingham, Alabama to start a career in music.
"I've been in music all of my life," Benson said. "I write songs all the time."
While his career hasn't sparked like he thought it would and he now finds himself to be homeless, he said this ministry has helped him focus on aspects of his life other than his career.
"I can't say that I'm the richest guy or the poorest guy, but I can actually say that throughout my day, I'm pretty comfortable," Benson said. "I don't care what I have in my pocket or where I slept the night before, I know God is going to keep a shelter and roof over my head and food in my belly."
Benson also said that the ability to keep making and writing music allows him to stay optimistic.
"To understand that what I write down on that paper and how fluently it comes off my brain through that pen on that paper let me know this is a gift from God," Benson said.
Bil Taban grew up in Sudan, Africa before his parents sent him to America as a child 14 years ago. Bil has fallen on tough times and is homeless, but he still hopes to one day have a career.
"I want to become a successful pilot," Taban said. "I like space. I love space. Everything about galaxies and science."
With the city of Austin emphasizing re-housing the homeless, Cole said he wants to better prepare his members for when that time comes.
"We have arguments or disagreements that break out, and we moderate those and encourage them to reach an end," Cole said. "The problem so often turns out to be living with other people and getting along with roommates."
Benson at one point got in one of these arguments, causing a disruption during one of the classes. He was suspended for 30 days, but he was able to return.
"I was allowed to come back because I was standing up for the right cause," Benson said. "I'm definitely learning how I am needing to act."
"I've learned to have respect for others as I have had to learn and had to grasp throughout the years," Willemsen said. "You can lift up your head. You can choose to be a part of this program. You can choose to come down to Bible study."
While Cole's ministry has many churches supporting his group, he said he is in need of belts and shoes right now. To learn more about this ministry, you can visit streetyouthministry.org.
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