Austin Leaders Move Forward With Homeless Aids
Ordinance changes provide some relief despite inflammatory rhetoric
Most mornings when William Sherrard wakes up, his friends already have the radio tuned to NewsRadio KLBJ, where they frequently hear callers on Todd Jeffries and Don Pryor's morning show describe in apocalyptic terms the city's recent ordinance changes that make it legal to sit, lie, camp, or ask for money in public spaces. Unlike most KLBJ listeners, Sherrard and the three others he lives with under the Mopac overpass at Howard Lane are listening intently to how their fellow Austinites talk about them.
"It hurts to be talked about like I'm just a stereotype," Sherrard told the Chronicle on a hot Monday afternoon, as cars and trucks zoomed by the small sheltered area he and his friends occupy. "People think I'm trash and that I don't want help. But just because I'm houseless doesn't mean I'm hopeless."
The language used by some in Austin to describe those experiencing homelessness, or the impact of the ordinance changes, which went into effect July 1, is both false and dangerously dehumanizing. For example, a press release issued by the Travis County GOP on July 3 claimed the city is now "allowing homeless camps on private, business frontage, and even public sidewalks." Only the last of these is true, but the party did not walk back the falsehood until contacted by PolitiFact Texas for a July 5 story.
Tweets from Gov. Greg Abbott have been more troubling, as his voice carries more weight than does the opposition party in a heavily Democractic county. In a July 10 tweet, Abbott called out city leaders for leaving in place a ban on camping at City Hall, without mentioning that camping is also prohibited on the state Capitol grounds. Earlier, on July 1, Abbott retweeted a false claim made by a former campaign staffer for Sen. Ted Cruz alleging that homeless individuals rushed onto East Seventh Street at I-35, causing a collision between two cars. Austin police watched video of the incident, which occurred right outside their headquarters, and told the community no pedestrians were involved – but Abbott's tweet is still up.
An extreme example was shared on July 10 by one leader of the "Homes Not Handcuffs" effort to change the ordinances, Council Member Greg Casar – an image he received of an urn with ashes beside it and a note reading, "Here's what you should 'do for' the vagrants." In a statement to the Chronicle, Casar said Abbott has chosen to "hop on Twitter to fearmonger and spread misinformation" rather than work on policy. "Instead of rolling up his sleeves to help, Abbott insists on having an enemy. It used to be Obama, but now with Trump in the White House, he's made Texas cities his boogeyman. It's a sad state of affairs."
Experts agree that this rhetoric certainly doesn't help Austin be a safer place for vulnerable populations. "The places that have been most successful in reducing homelessness have formed a unified front of elected leaders, advocates, law enforcement, and business interests," explained Steve Berg, vice president for Programs and Policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness. "When leaders point fingers at people and say they shouldn't be treated with respect or as human beings, it makes it hard to convince people to work together."
Establishing such a coalition is a top priority for Adler. After returning from meetings with leaders in Los Angeles and Seattle, he told us his biggest takeaway was the need to act decisively and immediately. He defended the unanimous June 20 Council vote to alter the ordinances, saying it was "an important first step" to confront the growing homelessness challenge. But, he added, the most important vote that day was on a separate item directing City Manager Spencer Cronk to develop new short-term strategies to help get people on the path to housing. "We've been speaking in incomplete sentences for too long," Adler said. "Our ordinances have only dealt with where people cannot be; we need to now focus on where they can go."
As previously written, the ordinances allowed APD to move those who were sitting or lying in front of businesses, regardless of the public safety risk (if any) they presented. The mayor says moving people who have no other place to go around the city in that way only provided a "false comfort." Instead, the city must build more shelter space, permanent supportive housing for those exiting homelessness, and affordable housing for those at risk of losing their homes.
The full effect of the ordinance changes will take time to be felt, but one notable impact is that service providers can more easily deliver the supports needed to help lift people out of homelessness. When those clients were forced abruptly to relocate, they often had no way to contact community health professionals and social workers. Simon Powell-Evans, a community health medic with Austin-Travis County EMS and a representative of the its employees association, said success in his job depends on establishing relationships. "We're not a charity," Powell-Evans told us. "Our role is to get the ball rolling for people to where they can be self-sufficient, but we can't do that if we can't find the people we're helping."