A version of this story ran in the May 2013 issue.
Above: Will Hancock provides services for homeless youth.
I don’t like to take a lot of credit,” Will Hancock says, sitting on his white-and-burnt-orange leather University of Texas desk chair. “I’m kind of the guy that really likes to do stuff behind the scenes.”
But Hancock, 45, has been putting himself out in front quite a bit. For the past five years, he’s been the program director of LifeWorks’ street outreach program and drop-in day shelter for homeless youth in the basement of the Congregational Church just west of the University of Texas-Austin campus.
LifeWorks is an Austin nonprofit that provides needy families and individuals with support services like affordable housing, education and counseling. The shelter is available three days a week for people younger than 23 who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
As program director, Hancock monitors the program’s budget, writes grants, and acts as a liaison to the rest of Lifeworks’ programs. He also puts in time at the youth shelter, giving his staff members a break. “One minute you’re in the office doing counseling with someone one-on-one, and the next minute you’re in the drop-in with anywhere from 10 to 30 kids all looking for various resources,” he says.
Downstairs and outside of Hancock’s third-floor office, a cluster of street kids—some shoeless, some sleeping, and others sitting on the sidewalk with their backs up against the church walls—wait for the church basement doors to open for the day’s services. UT students ride bikes or walk quickly by.
Hancock says working with this younger homeless population is different from working with older homeless people. “You just kind of felt like you were putting lot of Band-Aids on people to only just send them out and have them come back three, six months later,” he says. “We have an opportunity to intervene, to prevent [the youth] from actually becoming the older chronic population.”
The needs range from such basics as food and hygiene to more complex matters, like helping some kids make the transition to a more stable lifestyle. Homeless youth often hear about the center through word-of-mouth.
On a normal drop-in day, kids are greeted by Hancock and his staff, and asked to fill out an intake form and show their laminated street-outreach ID card. Then they can access any service that the drop-in provides: check their Facebook accounts on one of three computers, print documents, get canned or dry packaged food for themselves or their pets and browse the clothing donation rooms. There is a bathroom, a kitchen, a laundry room and a TV that is always on unless a group therapy session is underway.
The youth have access to condoms, shampoo, conditioner, soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes and bleach kits for sterilizing needles. Next to Hancock’s office on the third floor of the church, People’s Community Clinic offers health checkups on Thursdays at an outreach clinic.
“We basically have as low a barrier threshold to services as we can possibly come up with,” Hancock says. But lately, he says, the number of youth coming to the center has dropped. He attributes the decline, in part, to the city’s changing dynamics.
In the past few years, Austin’s growth has spurred developers, businesses, real estate agencies and the Austin Police Department to suggest moving homeless services—like the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless and the Salvation Army—out of downtown. Hancock says the APD has increased ticketing to the point that many homeless youth can’t travel through the outskirts of Austin into downtown without accumulating multiple tickets.
“Back in the day when Austin was just kind of a small hippie town, all the kids were on the street … up and down the drag, and so we set up shop in this area,” he says. “We’re now in an environment and in an area that’s really getting harder for them to access.”
This is where Hancock has put himself in the public eye: He’s been working to change the mentality that Austin’s homeless are an invading force. Instead, Hancock views the homeless population as part of the Austin community. “I think homeless people have a right to be in this city,” he said. “There’s homelessness everywhere. You can’t just move people out and act as if they don’t exist.”
Though dealing with troubled kids “gets heavy from time to time,” Hancock says he couldn’t be happier with his professional and personal life. He’s financially secure, and has a wonderful wife. No kids, though, he said.
“Well, I have kids,” he says. “They’re just all in the drop-in.”