Street Stories

Gregory Mack sits in a drainage tunnel under East Riverside Drive where homeless people live.

Story by Mary Huber
Photos by Jay Janner
Published on June 6, 2019

For thousands of Austinites, life on the streets is a daily struggle for survival.

Most didn’t choose that life. They had typical family lives, professional careers, stable homes. Addiction, job loss, eviction or tragedy forced them to the streets, and getting back to their old lives feels often like a far-off dream.

We spoke to homeless people living in camps, sitting outside shelters and standing under bridges. These are their stories.


Roxanne Novick spent most of a recent Thursday morning moving all her possessions to the side of the road along East Ben White Boulevard. Police said her makeshift home in the brush between the highway and the frontage road was an “eyesore.” She and her husband had to move.

The couple had been living in the shady area near Congress Avenue for five years — a trail of tarps, chairs and mattresses strewn in the dirt. hardly visible from the road.

Roxanne Novick

Novick said they had planned to move all their stuff the day prior, after a warning from police, but it had rained heavily across Austin. So that morning her husband, Bret Bourland, caught up on sleep as she gathered their things.

Suitcases. Laundry hampers. Stuffed animals. Trash bags filled with clothes. A metal canopy. To a passerby, it looked mostly like trash. But it was all they had.

Novick, 54, said she used to have a home and her husband a business. They lost both when Bourland caught his partner embezzling money and she was hospitalized after being hit by a car. Medical bills piled up, and they've been on the streets ever since.

Novick said she tried to stay at the ARCH downtown but people always touched her and tried to "shove crack down her throat."

"I'd rather be cold or in a pile of mats under a tree," she said.

Both Novick and Bourland are on ECHO's list for permanent housing and have been for years. Novick said she checks in often and is always told the same thing: "There's nothing happening now."

"I don't know why it's taking so long," Bourland said. "This isn't who we are. This isn't how we want to live."


Joe Nicholas has spent much of his life on trains.

A few years ago, he hopped off one in Austin, and he's been here ever since.

Today, he's one of many people who live under Interstate 35 at Sixth Street, in the shadow of a mural that advertises "Austin, Texas" and "Historic Sixth," near the hub of the city's nightlife.

Joe Nicholas

Every night, swarms of people crowd the area, walking, half tipsy, from the bars on Dirty Sixth to the bars on East Sixth.

Nicholas, 55, said the tourists are usually nice, doling out money and food when asked.

"If you go hungry in Austin, there's something wrong with you," he said.

There’s another homeless camp nearby, under the bridge at East Cesar Chavez Street. Nicholas said it's infested with rodents and raw sewage. Recently, a man was stabbed under the bridge. Nicholas said he was robbed there. Though he doesn't feel safe, Nicholas said he stays because it's "convenient and close to everything."

Nearby, homeless people carry foam brushes to wash the windows of cars at stoplights. Some people nod them away. Others roll down the window to give a dollar or two.

Nicholas said police sometimes ticket him for urinating in public or camping. He said he's got at least five warrants, but police never take him to jail.

"We love the Austin Police Department," he said. "They are so understanding."

Nicholas said his kids are grown, and his wife died years ago. Since then, he’s roamed the country by rail, taking odd jobs when he can.

He said if the city offered him housing, he wasn’t sure he would accept it.

"I ain't ready to come in yet," he said.


On a recent Thursday, Thallas Griffin sat on an overturned shopping cart on the corner of East Ben White Boulevard and Payload Pass, holding a sign that said, "Any help, thank you. God bless."

“Flying” is what some homeless people call it when they hold up a sign asking for money. Griffin said he “flies” his sign most days, hoping to get enough cash for a hotel room for the night.

On this day, he eyed the sky nervously, as a rain storm approached. If he couldn’t get $52 for a room, he'd have to find someplace to squat.

Nearby was a makeshift homeless camp under the Texas 71 overpass, a mishmash of mostly drenched cardboard boxes and trash, left abandoned in the day as its residents left in search of food and money.

Griffin said he doesn't stay under the highways, nor in the woods nearby, where dozens of homeless people have set up tents — some that sleep as many as eight people — between the towering cedar elm trees.

"You hear of people killing people in the woods, homeless killing homeless," Griffin said. "I'm not ready to die."

Griffin, who is 68, said he prefers to be in North Austin, where he used to have a house with his wife. She died three years ago, and he's been homeless ever since. He said he never expected to end up on the street, but life is hard and rent is high. He suffers from chronic pain, HIV and diabetes. Like many homeless people, he said he simply can't work.

"Some people you see flying, they have AIDS, cancer," he said. "I'm just trying to get a grip and get back to where I was. That's my hope. I'm too old to just live in the streets."

Sonia and Joe

Justin Fortune doesn’t look homeless. Except when he’s holding a sign by the side of the road asking for money.

The 12-year-old boy wore a bright green baseball cap, clean shirt and new black shoes. Instead of sitting in a classroom like most kids his age, learning grammar and algebraic equations, he's begging for money with his mom, Sonia Aranda, and her boyfriend, Jonathan Rodriguez, in Southeast Austin.

Sonia and Justin Aranda

Aranda, 37, said the family moved to Austin in April, after her aunt kicked them out of her home in Dallas.

"I thought there would be more help here," Rodriguez said. "I guess I was wrong."

Neither Aranda nor Rodriguez, who works in construction, have been able to find jobs in Austin. Now, the family sleeps in abandoned houses.

They tried to go to the ARCH, but the facility separated them because the couple isn't legally married.

Aranda’s eyes welled up as she watched her son. "He's a lot stronger than I am."


Gregory Mack lived in the drainage tunnels under Riverside Drive near Willow Creek in East Austin for many years. At any given time, more than half a dozen people call the tunnels home.

The water drains through so the ground is usually wet, and the walls are covered with graffiti. But it’s sheltered from the elements, and on a hot day in May, it’s cool.

Gregory Mack.

Mack doesn’t live in the tunnels anymore, he said. A few months ago, his leg started to swell from an old gunshot wound, and he had to check into a hospital. Doctors put him in a skilled nursing facility, where he stays now. But, he still goes down to the tunnels almost every day to see his friends.

"We have a bond," he said. “It’s about togetherness."

Mack, 60, said he had his own place when he first moved to Austin in 2012. But paying rent left him broke, so he decided to live on the streets.

“It's not worth it," he said. “Life puts a lot of pressure on us. Sometimes you just want to be free.”

He said the city is good about providing food for the homeless, but housing is another story.

“They make you jump through a lot of hoops,” he said.

When he gets out of the nursing facility, Mack will be eligible for housing through Medicaid. He said he'll still come down to the tunnels to see his friends, most of whom he says have never talked about how they ended up down there.

“They’re just like me,” he said. “The ending is still the same, so the story doesn’t even matter.”


Shirley Erskin has been on the streets since the brother she lived with died a few years ago. She’s spent most of her days since then on the corner of Seventh and Red River streets, in front of the Beerland, Texas bar, surrounded by a barricade of her shopping bags, begging for money.

She uses the money she gets to buy her favorite soda water. Many people turn her away, though.

Shirley Erskin

"They think you are going to buy drugs or whatever. I understand that part,” she said.

A green T-shirt wrapped around her head soaked up the sweat from her temples. Her left eye was sealed shut. She lost it years ago in a car crash.

On this day, though, a smile stretched wide across Erskin’s face.

"I had good news today," she said, telling workers with the city's Homeless Outreach Street Team, or HOST, that she had just been placed in permanent housing.

HOST had been checking on Erskin regularly. It makes rounds in the downtown corridor several times a week. The collaboration of Austin police, Austin-Travis County EMS, Travis County Integral Care and the Downtown Community Court has been working since 2016 to help connect homeless people on the streets to community resources.

Erskin was set to move within the week.

"God, he works in my life every day. Every day," Erskin says.