Oppose dehumanizing ordinances, support our homeless neighbors

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Photo Credit: Hilda Rodriguez | Daily Texan Staff

Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly said that the murder of Haruka Weiser's was in 2015. It was in April of 2016. The Texan regrets this error.

Homelessness is a crisis, but not for those who are housed. 

Tonight, over 2,000 Austinites won’t have a place to sleep. Around 1,300 people will spend the night in Austin’s homeless shelters, the rest on the sidewalk, in the woods, under overpasses or in their cars. The horror of homelessness is not that those who live in homes must see their homeless neighbors every day. The horror of homelessness is the fact that homelessness exists at all.

Thankfully, after years of dehumanizing policies that criminalized the very existence of those who are homeless, Austin rolled back its three most damaging anti-homeless ordinances in June. 

Homelessness is now more visible in Austin than ever before — the true extent of public suffering in our city is on display. But instead of compassion for our neighbors without homes, we have witnessed a backlash that runs from our University community to the nation’s capital

We cannot let those in our community, who dehumanize the homeless, control the narrative when the lives of over 2,000 of our neighbors are at stake. As Austin City Council votes to reinstate camping bans Oct. 17, we as UT students must stand with people
experiencing homelessness.

Austin’s criminalization of homelessness was a failure. For years, the city of Austin attempted to address homelessness by aggressively ticketing and arresting our city’s most vulnerable.

The “No Sit/No Lie” ordinance criminalized sitting down on public streets or sidewalks for more than 30 minutes at a time. A ban on “aggressive” panhandling prevented people experiencing homelessness from asking for money.

The ban on public camping prohibited people from storing personal belongings in public or living in a tent or car. With no place else to exist except public spaces — space that should belong to all of us — Austin’s homeless would either be ticketed for existing or forced to constantly evade the police. 

There’s a reason ordinances like this have been found unconstitutional. It’s cruel and unusual punishment for the crime of being too poor to afford housing.

It also happens to be the ordinance that SafeHorns, UTPD and UT’s Vice President want to bring back.

SafeHorns, largely made up of UT parents, claims to speak for the interests of students when calling on the camping ban to be reinstated in West Campus. UT’s Vice President Darrell Bazzell and UTPD Chief David Carter call for the same to protect UT students. They do not speak for us.

UT’s Student Government passed legislation supporting City Council’s new homeless decriminalization ordinances. Columnists at The Daily Texan have expressed their support of people experiencing homelessness for months.

We refuse to be used as pawns by administrators and outside organizations to uphold a failed policy. 

Between 2014 and 2016 alone, 18,000 citations for Austin’s old ordinances were given out. Austin’s homeless were ticketed on average 5.7 times per year. All of these citations come with fines of up to $500 — a ludicrous amount to believe a person experiencing homelessness could pay. Between 2011 and 2015 only 39 were able to.

Unpaid citations lead to warrants, warrants lead to jail. Once you have a warrant — or jail time — on your record, finding a job or a place to live becomes exponentially more difficult. The cycle of homelessness is further entrenched, and what could have been two months without a home can turn into two years.

No plan to end the cycle of homelessness can involve a pipeline to jail. It is disingenuous to claim that recriminalization of homelessness in any form is part of the solution.

When 33% of Austinites experiencing homelessness tell us that the cost of living caused them to lose their homes, when 35% cite unemployment and 30% cite mental health needs, it is abundantly clear that we need to be fighting for affordable housing, living wages and accessible mental healthcare — not more policing.

During a recent panel hosted by The Daily Texan, SafeHorns president Joell McNew referred multiple times to “violent transients” that threaten UT students. Others bemoan the “chaos” that rolling back these ordinances has caused. Gov. Greg Abbott spread misinformation about a homeless man causing a car accident in Austin.

People experiencing homelessness are not hell-bent on terrorizing those who are housed. This narrative, painted by media outlets, conservative politicians and anti-homeless groups, portrays a vulnerable group as an imminent danger. Individual offenses — arson, robbery — are used to depict an entire community as dangerous, as deserving of their status as America’s poorest and least served.

Ultimately, people experiencing homelessness are more likely to face attacks than carry them out — they’re just rarely reported. After Austin rolled back the anti-homeless ordinances, a homeless couple’s tent was destroyed in an act of arson. It wasn’t the first time they were targeted. Nearly half of Austin’s homeless have reported being attacked.

There are exceptions. In 2016, freshman Haruka Weiser was murdered on campus by a man experiencing homelessness. The pain of this tragedy still weighs heavily over campus three years later. We understand the need to protect the UT community, to make sure this never happens again.

However, if we want to actually make students and people experiencing homelessness safer, we must focus on connecting Austin’s homeless with housing and mental health care — not jail cells.

The Austin City Council’s decriminalization of homelessness in the face of the backlash from monied interests and sensationalist groups is admirable. As these attacks continue and Austinites are gaslighted by the dehumanizing narrative of “violent transients,” we must continue to stand in defense of our neighbors and ensure City Council does the same.

City Council will discuss new camping bans for much of downtown and West Campus on Oct. 17. Kathie Tovo, who represents West Campus, is a sponsor. Remind her how students actually feel about criminalizing homelessness. 

The UT community is too often used as a pawn for the interests of those who purport to represent us. SafeHorns, UTPD and the UT Administration do not speak for us. We must speak out as a student body and reclaim our agency to fight for the most vulnerable in our community.

The editorial board is composed of associate editors Emily Caldwell, Angélica López, Sanika Nayak, Abby Springs and editor-in-chief Spencer Buckner.