Plastic Bags Vs. Women’s Lives

Emily Mathis

On any given night in Austin about 4,000 people will be in need of emergency overnight shelter, according to House the Homeless, an Austin-based nonprofit. Only 700 beds will be available at local shelters, such as the Salvation Army and Front Steps. Much of the city’s homeless population will end up on the streets waiting for a bed, often for several weeks.

Cities nationwide are unable to accommodate the growing national homeless population. But in Austin, the recent murder of Valerie Godoy, a homeless woman, has many concerned because women turned away from shelters are not safe on the streets.

Because of ongoing investigation, the Austin Police Department’s Homicide Unit declined to comment about the circumstances of Godoy’s death. According to APD, Godoy was homeless at the time of her death and killed by “blunt force trauma.” Her death has sparked outspoken concern for the population of single, homeless women in Austin who account for an estimated 7 to 20 percent of the total Austin homeless population, according to Richard Troxell, president of House the Homeless. The National Institute of Justice, a federal agency, reports that homeless
women are two to four times more at-risk of becoming a victim of a violent crime, such as physical or sexual assault.

“The city of Austin currently has seven overnight shelters … some of which are shelters for domestic violence or cater to a certain demographic. These shelters are funded by federal, city and state governments,” says Jessie Aric, program manager for the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, a nonprofit in Austin. Around 10 local churches convert their facilities to overnight shelters when the weather gets rough. Yet Troxell says, “More and more people are being turned away from overnight shelters due to the rising homeless population. There simply aren’t enough beds to handle the growing need. There is an urgent need to protect these women.”

House the Homeless has organized a petition for a women’s homeless shelter in Austin. There are currently over 2,800 signatures on this petition. The organization plans to take the petition to the Austin City Council when the number of signatures “[have] reached a tipping point,” according to Troxell, who cannot determine when or what number that will be. “When the City Council sees that there is a legitimate concern, they can respond to the need.” The City Council would then form a task force and begin to determine where money for the shelter will come from, Troxell said.

Immediately after Godoy’s death, House the Homeless went to the City Council to request that a women’s homeless shelter be built. The nonprofit’s representatives have been informed by city council members that there is not enough money in the city budget to fund a women’s shelter. There are other options to finance a shelter that a task force could determine, such as a federal loan or private donations. In the meantime, local homeless advocacy groups have begun to organize to provide short-term, immediate emergency shelter for single, homeless women.

In 2012, the Austin City Council confidently voted to spend $2 million to educate the public about the new citywide plastic and paper bag ban. I hope I’m not alone in feeling frustrated by the City Council’s response that “there isn’t enough money” to create a women’s shelter. Our city council members would do well to observe the roughly 3,300 people sleeping on the streets of Austin on any given night the next time they favor spending money on a plastic bag ban over human life and dignity.

Students can rally to help Austin’s most vulnerable. Convince the Austin City Council that we value the protection of our homeless population. Visit and please, sign the petition.

Mathis is an English and musicology major from Denton.