Thursday, September 19, 2019

Initial thoughts on the Great Austin Homelessness Debate

Yesterday, more than 150 people spoke to the Austin City Council on proposed revisions to their homeless decriminalization ordinance passed in June. (See initial MSM coverage here and here.) They won't finally vote until tomorrow, but here are a few initial thoughts:
  • Despite the local media clambering onto the bandwagon of NIMBY opposition and the local GOP calling for re-criminalization, Austinites supporting decriminalization made up the majority of speakers. Those voices hadn't been portrayed much in local press coverage, but there were quite a few more of them than critics.
  • Numerous local organizations - almost none of whose positions had been covered in the intensive press buildup to the hearing - formally supported the city council's decrim position. Here's a list Just Liberty compiled of those groups and presented to the council.
  • Most of the opposition to the June decrim ordinance came from white folks over 50. With few exceptions, they pretty much all made the same argument: we don't want to see homeless people or their stuff in public, don't want to pay for services for them, and we fear for the safety of our women-folk. A few critics did say they supported work by charity organizations like Mobile Loaves and Fishes, but ignored that the groups they praised disagree with their position on the decrim ordinance. 
  • About 30-40 decrim opponents arrived wearing blue shirts that said "Take Back Austin." A representative of that organization declared that they'd formed three weeks ago and already had 3,000 members. Apparently, this bunch want to take Austin back from the city's majority, since decrim supporters outnumbered critics and only about 1% of their alleged membership showed up.
  • Notably, despite the local GOP's ill-advised entry into the fray, Take Back Austin doesn't even represent the views of all conservatives. I was there  recently when a representative from that group came and pitched their petition at a meeting of Texans for Accountable Government, a liberty-minded conservative activist group. His comments alienated most of the room and he left without an endorsement.
  • Many decrim critics were incredibly angry and rude - especially for the first hour or so, people would holler out and interrupt speakers from the other side, or talk loudly among themselves when someone was speaking with whom they disagreed. I thought their behavior discredited them nearly as much as their lack of sound arguments. The mayor demonstrated extreme patience in not kicking out the worst offenders.
  • A UT-Austin group called SafeHorns has been one of the most oft-quoted critics of the city council during this debate, claiming to speak for UT students. But this week Student Government at UT-Austin voted to support the city council's decrim measures. And nearly all of the young people who spoke were against rolling back the council's June ordinance. So it's now clear those few voices given an out-sized platform by local media don't necessarily speak for the whole student body.
  • By contrast, decrim supporters included folks across the age spectrum, but skewed younger, much more diverse, were more solutions-oriented, and endorsed a greater variety of more nuanced perspectives.
  • Chas Moore from the Austin Justice Coalition read city council the riot act, emphasizing that only seven percent of Austin's population is black but around 40% of homeless people are. He suggested (and IMO it's almost certainly true) that that's a big, underlying cause of the opposition.
  • Grits also appreciated that several white women addressed the "protect our women" trope, describing how that meme had been used to justify racial discrimination and even lynchings throughout American history. I was grateful someone confronted that head on, it was a necessary antidote to some of the Jim-Crow-esque rhetoric being casually thrown around.
  • The role of Class C misdemeanor enforcement came up a lot. When homeless folks were ticketed for sitting or lying under the old regime, they couldn't pay so the tickets would turn into warrants. Then later, they'd be arrested and, when they got out of jail, all their belongings had been stolen or confiscated by police. A woman described the agony of losing every family photo she owned that way. (That was the only time I genuinely teared up. My family photos are among my most precious belongings.)
  • Testimony from homeless people was generally excellent. A consistent story from the pre-decrim days involved being rousted while sleeping, told to move from where they were, but having no place to go. People described being robbed or having belongings confiscated because they couldn't leave their stuff even to apply for a job. Others emphasized the inability to find a place to shower, to find transportation even to apply for services. A theme from decrim supporters that resonated throughout the day was that, if council wanted to know what homeless people need to improve their lot, somebody should ask them instead of just listening to the angriest voices in the room.
  • One of the few things nearly everyone agreed on was that the rising cost of living in Austin was driving much of the homelessness problem. Republicans in the room wanted to attribute that to taxes, but in truth, most of it is driven by the market. Californians sell their Bay-Area two-bedroom for $1.2 million then show up in Austin and drive up local prices. (E.g., I live in a house that my wife and I rented for $190 a month in the 1990s, before buying it from the landlord in '96 for $40k at the nadir of the Savings and Loan bust. Today, it's on the tax rolls for more than $450k. Sure, our taxes are higher, but that's not the main thing making Austin un-affordable.) Calls for emergency rent subsidies and grant subsidies to promote home ownership were some of the more interesting suggestions that cropped up on this score.
As a white homeowner over 50 who's now lived in Austin for 34 years, Grits couldn't really understand the over-the-top animosity coming from others who share my subject position. I spend a fair amount of time downtown and there are homeless folks in my neighborhood. I simply don't see the wave of new problems described by the loud, angry "Take Back" crowd throughout the day. I see a few more homeless people now - mostly camping under overpasses more openly - but I haven't witnessed any new issues that public restrooms, showers and trash-pickup services wouldn't resolve.

Moreover, most of the things critics say drive their concerns with homeless people - trespassing on private property, physically attacking or intimidating people, urinating or masturbating in public - are still illegal. Nothing about the ordinance legalizing sitting and lying down in public changed that, so many of the complaints frankly seem disingenuous.

Comments from councilmembers seemed to indicate that there are sufficient votes to resist the more draconian rollbacks of the decrim ordinance being suggested, but there's no way to tell for sure until the City Council votes tomorrow. Here's hoping they stick to their guns and do the right thing.

UPDATE: For now, the city council rejected reinstatement of the no-sit/no-lie ordinance. Four backed expanding the ordinance even further than it went before the law was changed in June. Five including the mayor endorsed less expansive changes that would reinstate it only around homeless shelters, aiming to address people congregating outside the downtown homeless shelter and a new one being built in South Austin. And two - who in the end, won the day - said the council was being reactive and should give the city's new homeless coordinator who was just hired time to assess the situation and make a recommendation. The council agreed to hold a work session in October to discuss matters further. (Ugh. :/)


Anonymous said...

Grits, I am surprised why you can't see why turning a city's public spaces into an open sewer populated by a wide assortment of indigents is a bad thing. The filth and stink of cities like San Francisco and Portland should be a wake up call for even the most hidebound leftists.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Nobody said that the unhoused poor camping in public spaces is a good thing. Rather, the issue is that criminalizing basic human functions like sitting and lying down is a fundamental human rights violation and criminalizing those functions won't solve the problem.

Also, people camping under the overpasses just doesn't bother me. If folks don't have homes and must sleep outside, that's simply not a terrible spot for them until the city can come up with actual solutions.

Anonymous said...

Trust me. There are many more people against the lack of a homeless ordinance than not. Many of the people at the Council meeting were probably asked to come by Casar.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Why should I trust someone who won't even give their name? And don't think for a moment the Take Back Austin folks weren't doing everything they could to drive people to the hearing. It just turned out that more people opposed their position than supported it.

Anonymous said...

Present your positions to the social justice council and incorporate the solutions into your social justice plan....every city and county has one, right???

Steven Michael Seys said...

The problem of homelessness is multi-faceted and requries solutions to each facet of the problem or it won't be fully solved. There's the problem of cost of housing, the problem of mental health, the problem of drug addiction, the problem of joblessness, and the problem of human choice. I probably missed several other problems as well, but if they're not all addressed, any attempted solution is just wallpapering over the cracks in the edifice and won't keep the walls from tumbling in on us. Criminalizing homelessness just pushes the problem on the justice system.

Robin C said...

How on earth is it a crime to be so poor you cannot afford a place to sleep? And how is putting such people in jail for a couple of days (I imagine) a solution? One last thing: if one or two people were doing it, we might attribute this phenomenon to personal choice. (Heaven knows why someone would choose to sleep on the street instead of in a bed, but there are all kinds of people in the world.) But when many, many people are doing it, it is a systemic issue—and systemic issues require systemic solutions. Penalizing individuals by putting them in jail ain't that.

Kathryn said...

As always, a thoughtful, intelligent post. I appreciate your voice, though I never tell you that.

Anonymous said...

Those who dare contradict the decriminalization message on this end up assaulted all over the internet (or worse), so don't be surprised people continue to be anonymous.

I'm a progressive and align with you about 98% of the time; but on this one you're wrong.

Christel said...

Anonymous, if we are in agreement 98% of the time I’m surprised you feel so afraid to use your name. Really this conversation has been very cordial. If you are interested in understanding the complexity of this issue dig in. There are lots of good articles. E.g.