Campus-Area Homeless Face Backlash in Wake of Haruka Weiser Murder

Viral petition seeks to relocate Guadalupe's homeless community

Photo by Jana Birchum

Five months ago, Tanner Golden, a junior at the University of Texas at Austin, started a petition for an assignment in his government class. The petition, "Keep Guadalupe streets safe for UT Austin students," calls on the city to "protect the students of Austin by lessening the homeless population." Golden based the petition on his and his friends' numerous experiences with harassment around campus. After a homeless teen was arrested in connection with the murder of UT student Haruka Weiser, the petition went viral and now has over 2800 signatures. The petition is also generating heated conversations about student safety and the homeless population around campus.

"[The petition] didn't get more than 15 signatures until after her death – it spread so fast," Golden said. "The first time I got notification was from a friend of friend who said ... it made it to the UT parent page."

That page is the Facebook group UT Par­ents Putting Safety First, which has over 700 members. According to Joell Sullivan-McNew, member of the group and mother of a UT student, the group formed last July to address issues during move-in and the assault of a student in West Campus. Sulli­van-McNew says her group has documentation of many students who were assaulted by the homeless near campus. "We realize homelessness is not illegal – it is a serious issue that covers addiction and mental health. But how do we feel confident that the students are safe while the city, which is the students' temporary home, resolves the issue?" she asked.

Currently, the concerned parents are meeting with UT and public officials in Austin to determine ways to make campus safer. But not all students believe the homeless population poses a significant threat. "I don't think it's fair to put this stigma on the entire homeless community because of this one homeless man who committed the act," Josh Garcia, a junior and sociology student at UT said. "I just feel like they're still people, and I don't see how people could want to remove this community, as if they weren't people."

One solution that the petition and others advocate is the removal of service providers from the area. LifeWorks, a nonprofit dedicated to serving homeless youth, is located near the Drag. The organization began providing services in the West Campus area, including HIV prevention and basic needs, in 1993. It was part of a larger coalition of faith-based and community service providers in the area that promoted the health and safety of the homeless. But according to Susan McDowell, executive director of LifeWorks, the homeless population in the area has evolved over the past 20 years. Youth homelessness has become more severe and there is a significant increase in the adult homeless population, who also hang out around West Campus. For McDow­ell, safety is not just security for students, but for the homeless community, who are much more likely to be victims of violence.

"After a tragedy, people want to feel safe again. ... Now is the time our community needs to come together and understand what it's going to take to solve homelessness. If all we do is focus on relocating homelessness, we're just moving what is essentially a problem of the human condition in Austin," McDowell said.

As more details emerge about Weiser's murder, the conversation in Austin is just getting started. It is one that touches on the lack of services in the city for the homeless, safety of students, and shortcomings in UT policies. "We don't have to engage in debate that pits us against each other. We all have the same goal here: a community that is safe and affords everyone dignity," McDowell said.

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Haruka Weiser, homeless, LifeWorks, Tanner Golden, University of Texas

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