Humanize, don’t criminalize, the homeless

“Safety and security don’t just happen. They are the result of collective consensus and public investment.” 

SafeHorns, an organization dedicated to ensuring the safety of UT students, features this Nelson Mandela quote on their website. The group was founded in 2016 in the aftermath of Haruka Weiser’s on-campus murder. Her killer, a teen who had recently run away from home, instantly sparked discussions linking student safety to Austin’s homeless population.

“As a mom, I wanted to pull my teen children closer, figure out a way to keep them safe,” UT graduate Amy Price said in an email. She now serves as Director of Development and Communications at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless

“As a nonprofit professional, I watched the news to see how the coverage of the suspect/killer would be handled,” Price said. 

When the media labeled him a homeless youth instead of a disturbed individual, Price remembers thinking “runaway” would have been a more accurate description. By making homelessness the murderer’s defining quality, media outlets implicated the homeless community as a whole.

Homelessness is surrounded by stigma, and though everyone involved in this discussion has safety at the heart of their message, this safety often stops short at ensuring the security of the people living on the streets. The attitude that criminalizes a group of people for hard times has not put roofs over their heads. Instead of turning a blind eye, UT’s community should stand in solidarity with our less fortunate members of society, transforming contempt into efforts to humanize the underprivileged.

To start, students should rethink the term “homeless,” which generalizes anyone seen lingering on the streets. In a society that names street groups as lazy, crazy, drug-addicted or criminal, many may feel hopeless, incapable and undeserving of a way out of their plight. 

“A big problem with homelessness is the stigma surrounding it, which of course prevents individuals from being able to get a job,” said Alan Martinez, biology junior and founder of Friends of Street Youth, in an email. “It also has hidden effects, like preventing them from thinking they’re even good enough to overcome their troubles.”

As a community, Austin has taken great strides toward decriminalizing homelessness since the City passed an ordinance that stops citations for sitting, laying or camping in public places beginning on July 2, 2019. 

This comes just days after the Austin City Council approved a new $8.6 million shelter for the homeless in South Austin. In response, one South Austin resident accused Austin’s homeless population of “terrorizing” our communities.

This attitude is a larger reflection of a societal misunderstanding. 

Price thinks that a distinction must be made between “homeless” and “panhandler,” and she hopes for people to stop using the word “homeless” as a default. 

“If someone steals your bike, call them a criminal,” Price said. “If someone asks you for money, call them a panhandler. Words matter, and something as simple as this would help with the larger conversation. You don’t have to give anyone money, but respect is a basic human currency.”

As a community that prioritizes education, UT students should work toward humanizing the less privileged of our city. Students should first educate themselves by reading about the School of Social Work’s perspectives on homelessness. Volunteer opportunities are available through Martinez’s Friends of Street Youth, which aims efforts at creating resources for Austin’s young homeless population. Those interested can also get involved with The Other Ones Foundation, an organization that seeks to employ and house Austin’s people living on the street while initiating cleanup efforts. Additionally, students can become advocates or join community work groups through Austin ECHO.

Martinez has one humble solution. 

“My ideal UT campus would make a simple change; to have students smiling and greeting these homeless individuals, acknowledging them as living, breathing people,” Martinez said. 

Collective consensus and public investment can begin with mere compassion, emboldening individuals who feel trapped in the cycle of social stigma and disempowerment.

Burns Passafiume is a third-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese.