Beside the Point: Somewhere Over the Dais

Pay no attention to the man sleeping under the bridge

A tired and giggly council, along with what was left at 10pm of a crowd after the marathon presentation on African-American Quality of Life (see "Engineering Quality – and Equality," p.28), witnessed one whacked-out public hearing at City Hall last Thursday night as House the Homeless director Richard Troxell and his merry band of supporters delivered an impromptu production – with apologies to The Wizard of Oz – of the struggles of Austin's homeless.

Clad in a suit and sparkly green hat, Troxell became the "Mayor of Austinville." His ragtag group of archetypes included a Lion, given "courage to do the right thing." A Tin Man earned "a heart to do unto others as you would have them do unto you." And, of course, a Scarecrow. "I'm not smart enough," the Scarecrow said, "but I'm smart enough to know if you pay people a living wage, they can work themselves off the streets."

Wizardry aside, the House the Homeless Players were virtually alone in speaking against proposed "public order" ordinances intended to tighten restrictions on disruptive street behavior, laws that Troxell and others believe will effectively criminalize homelessness. Originally trotted out late last year (before Jennifer Kim and Lee Leffingwell assumed office), the four ordinances would prohibit 1) aggressive panhandling; 2) door-to-door solicitation in the evening; 3) streetside solicitation of motor vehicles; and 4) sitting, lying down, or sleeping outdoors in the Downtown Business District, which stretches north to 29th (effectively aiming the regs at the Drag as well as Downtown). Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza, in rolling out the ordinances Oct. 20, said they're modeled after language from other cities that has withstood legal scrutiny.

"I feel a little like the wicked witch of the west," said Cookie Ruiz, executive director of Ballet Austin, given the dubious honor of following House the Homeless. Ruiz was one of dozens speaking in favor; as Ballet Austin is expanding its Downtown presence, attracting more children into the CBD, she is concerned about their safety. Others in favor included Downtown Commission Chair Perry Lorenz, the Downtown Austin Alliance, the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association, the Pecan Street Owners Association, the Austin Hotel & Lodging Association, and other assorted booster types. Four Seasons General Manager Tom Segesta declared the importance of preserving the "emotional security and safety" of the hotel's guests.

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

Despite the litany of horrible traits ascribed to the itinerant homeless – including rape, public masturbation, theft, and emotional vampirism – nothing approaching an alternate plan for Austin's homeless was presented. This despite some encouraging developments paving the way: $470,000 for additional hours and beds at Downtown's overcrowded Austin Resource Center for the Homeless in the 2005-06 budget, funds for Housing Authority and Salvation Army rental assistance scheduled for approval today, and the Salvation Army's announcement of a $30 million community center in the new Mueller development. Nonetheless, Salvation Army Major Dan Neu himself addressed the council, deriding a "predator class" of Austin's homeless, saying current ordinances need "more teeth."

Even House the Homeless, despite its thespian enthusiasm, didn't add much to the debate. Members' guerrilla testimony, culminating in chants of "Do the Right Thing!" – forsaking the Yellow Brick Road for the Moral High Ground – made for an entertaining presentation, but the show offered nothing in the way of alleviating the undeniable immediate problem of destitute and occasionally mentally ill people living on the public streets. A universal living wage would undoubtedly go far in alleviating the predicament of Austin's homeless – as would manna from federal heaven – but Troxell never saw fit to mention the actual ordinances, nor offer any practical alternative.

Speakers from the city's own Homeless Task Force made the best case against the ordinances, citing the increased cost of enforcement and jailing, funds that could be better spent on the causes of homelessness – mental health care, social services, and drug and alcohol treatment. The ordinances are scheduled for another public hearing Nov. 17, with council action most likely Dec. 15. In the meantime, pay no attention to that man behind the curtain – or the one sleeping in his bikini underwear at Sixth and Congress.

This Thursday, Nov. 3, council is expected to adopt the Austin Downtown Public Improvement District Service Plan, created by the city, which charged the Downtown Austin Alliance with its implementation. Fully 36% of the booster club's budget this year goes toward security, with additional funds for maintenance (graffiti removal), economic development, streetscapes, transportation, arts marketing, and more. How many homeless might be moved into transitional housing or drug treatment with that $1.4 million, however, remains undetermined. For the homeless – there really is no place like home.

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