City Hall Hustle: Across The Universe

Housing advocate Troxell provides chapter and verse on living wage

When I was just a little Hustler, there was a strange sight at one of my early City Council meetings: a man in a green top hat, leading a band of supporters, some homeless, in a bizarro retelling of The Wizard of Oz. (This was before the current spate of anti-fluoride lecturers and one-world government paranoiacs staged a hostile takeover of council's citizens communications period – and proves they didn't always have a monopoly on teh crazy.)

Five years later, I still recall the theatrics – but I also remember the script. Leading the Yellow Brick Roadies was one Richard Troxell, founder of House the Homeless. And unfortunately, with respect to his role and the city's attempts to move folks off the street, it doesn't look like a job he'll have to quit any time soon. (Well, remembering what I do of his acting chops, maybe that's for the best.)

Stunts like his City Hall performance are part of his organization's stock-in-trade. Along with the odd council playbill, House the Homeless has unfurled banners over highways to push their message. It's also conducted its own surveys of the homeless, sponsored an annual thermal underwear drive each winter, and held far too many memorials for those who died on the street.

Now with the publication of a new book, Trox­ell's fight has – forgive the pun – entered a new chapter. Looking up at the Bottom Line: The Struggle for the Living Wage! tells Troxell's tale through the prism of HTH's primary policy prescription: the push for a universal living wage.

"The book is a vehicle for us to talk about the real impact of not addressing the economic situation that's leading so many people into homelessness," Troxell says. With its "one-size-fits-all approach," vis-à-vis the minimum wage, he says, "the federal government is the greatest creator of homelessness in this nation."

To that end, Troxell's long pushed for a universal living wage as the solution to getting the most homeless off the streets. He's created a formula to calculate the ULW indexed to local housing costs, "the number one most expensive item in the budget of every person." The wage should be enough to ensure that "40 units of work" – primarily hours, but benefits like health and dental coverage could also count as units – means workers "should be able to afford basic food, clothing, and shelter, including utilities, and have enough left over to ride public transportation" – something, in a rational world, that would not be the revolutionary concept it is. In Austin-Round Rock, it comes to a princely $13.23 an hour, according to

Obviously, a nationwide living wage is a mite beyond the purview of the City Council or the commissioners court. As Troxell's made his bones locally but pushes for sweeping change on a national level, how does he hope to gain traction? He says he's been "building a political base" with the city and county, both of which have endorsed the ULW. Nationally, he says he'll continue advocating for its gradual implementation – he proposes a 10-year phase-in to avoid employer sticker shock. "We've been talking about the public sector. They're able to set an example. But it's up to businesses now – we have to come together and recognize this is something we need."

Despite the city's previous endorsement of the ULW, it hasn't figured prominently in current city plans for combating homelessness. Recently, council was briefed on a permanent supportive housing plan in which comprehensive support services are offered to the homeless along with subsidized rent (see "City Hall Hustle," Oct. 8). "It's costly," Troxell says. His worry is that once recipients are stabilized, the process gets "bollixed up" – without jobs paying a living wage, how can they hope to transition out of subsidized units? "Then we've got to build 350 units, then you've got the whole NIMBYism thing. How long is it gonna take to house all of those homeless in those units?"

While Troxell may question other forms of assistance in his ULW zeal and face one hell of an uphill climb with the national campaign, he's still doing indispensable work. At that meeting five years back, his troupe protested the flawed anti-loitering ordinance; after working on the issue for years, Troxell and HTH were instrumental in earning medical exceptions to the "no sit/no lie" ordinance.

He's passionate because he once knew homelessness, before his life turned around. "My daughter, who's now 20, grew up through homelessness with us," he says. Now, "I don't want her walking through the park and getting harassed for her change." But there has to be a solution. Troxell thinks he's found it, but it's gonna be another long, hard slog.

"I go down to that ARCH, and I see 200 guys a day that should be working – what the hell's up with that? I wish I could say, 'Hey man, here's a pathway – let's walk it out.' But right now you can't say that. How can you turn to one of these guys and say, 'Get a job,' when the job won't get you a roof over your head unless it's under a bridge?"

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