Opinion: White Privilege in Austin’s Unhoused Community

Alberta Phillips, chair of the ECHO Board of Governors, explains the kind of racism that can lock Black people into a lifetime of living unsheltered

Opinion: White Privilege in Austin’s Unhoused Community

In the aftermath of a blistering winter storm that swept through the state last month, city officials and residents are focused on recovery. But that monster storm – just like the COVID-19 pandemic – further exposed racial inequities confronting Austin regarding its population of unsheltered people.

With the weather warming, residents who had temporarily abandoned their tent homes for city "warming centers" are back on the streets. They continue to face big threats, such as the coronavirus pandemic. For unsheltered African American residents, however, the threat is far greater because of systemic racism.

It's the kind of racism that can and does lock Black people into a lifetime of living unsheltered in Austin.

As an African American woman who chairs the ECHO Board (the first in its 10-year history), the irony of these things converging during Black History Month, in which we celebrate Black accomplishment, did not elude me.

Consider that African Americans make up a plurality – the largest share – of those experiencing homelessness in Austin: 36%. How is that possible in a city in which Black residents comprise roughly 8% of Austin's total population?

Mathematically, that is more than four times our numbers in the overall population. By contrast, non-Hispanic whites make up 33%; and Latinos, 25% of those experiencing homelessness. Asians, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and multi-racial persons make up the remainder.

Those figures serve as a reality check that cannot be explained without looking at the root causes, which for too long have kept African Americans at the bottom of the pile of people in Austin who are prioritized for housing. Historically, unsheltered white residents have received such priority.

There is enough blame to go around, from a City Hall that veers from eliminating Austin's camping ban to restoring it in some form, to the nonprofit organizations that serve people experiencing homelessness in Austin. Certainly, they are hard-working and well-intended, but they are predominantly white (as is ECHO). They and ECHO have acknowledged their implicit (and sometimes explicit) biases, the kind that crop up in the reentry/intake process for housing that has mostly white people interviewing people of color in a dynamic that long has proved inherently biased.

Then there is the criminal justice system with its enduring legacy of slavery in which Black people were targeted and arrested for vagrancy, especially in white areas, such as Downtown. Remember, the city of Austin's 1928 Master Plan removed most Blacks from all parts of the city, establishing a "Negro District" east of Interstate 35. The message was, "That is your place." It was another way of controlling the movement of Black people, as they weren't welcome Downtown or in most neighborhoods, even those in which they once lived and owned homes.

Such vagrancy laws and other policies governing the movement of Austin's Black residents decades ago are akin to modern-day laws City Councils established, essentially outlawing loitering, sleeping, or panhandling Downtown. Make no mistake: Those laws disproportionately impacted Black homeless people. Our jails are living proof. African Americans made up 32% of the total bookings in the Travis County Jail as of March 11 – four times our population share.

In essentially criminalizing homelessness, Austin made it tougher for all unsheltered people to acquire housing and jobs because landlords and employers had policies against renting to or hiring folks with criminal backgrounds. Overlay race to those factors and it's easy to see how unsheltered Black residents can languish for years in the system.

It seems white privilege rules even in the world of people experiencing homelessness.

I recognize the value in having a Downtown that is welcoming for tourists and neighborhoods that aren't overrun with campsites. Know that ECHO and its many partners are working on solutions that are fair to businesses, homeowners, and unsheltered people. There are plans for an upcoming summit to address such issues. We also are reconfiguring some systems to tackle systemic racism.

Even so, it takes a village to overcome. We need your support.

Alberta Phillips is chair of the ECHO Board of Governors and was formerly a member of the Austin American-Statesman Editorial Board.

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homelessness, Alberta Phillips, ECHO

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