Over the last few months, now that the weather is warmer and the days are longer, I’ve started meeting friends at parks around Austin to sit at least six feet apart, drink a beer, and catch up.
A few weeks back I met a friend of mine at a park near my house and we got to catching up about all the things you’d expect one might: work, what our experiences were living through the pandemic and political unrest of the last year, family life.
At one point in our conversation, the subject turned to Prop B—a ballot measure in Austin’s may 2020 election that will allow voters the opportunity to reinstate fines and/or jail-time for individuals who camp, sit, lie down, or panhandle in public. The folks most likely to do any of those things, of course, are unhoused.
Voters are being given this choice because in 2019 Austin City Council voted unanimously to remove the threat of fines or jail-time because those punitive measures create a barrier to housing or employment. If you’ve been fined and you’re unable to pay, you might get a warrant. If you have a warrant out for your arrest, you probably aren’t going to qualify for housing, even if you have the money to afford it.
Far too often, it’s a cycle.
In the aftermath of Council’s vote, public outcry was fierce and, over time, that led to a proposed ballot initiative getting enough signatures within the community to place it on the ballot for Austin voters to decide this May.
Though I agreed then and agree now that they made the right decision, Austin City Council, in my opinion, did not communicate that the constituency for this ordinance change wasn’t the broader public—the primary constituency for this ordinance change was Austin’s unhoused community.
They also didn’t communicate clearly enough that the 2019 ordinance change was not supposed to be a solve for homelessness by itself, merely one piece of a much larger puzzle, aimed at removing a punitive barrier for unhoused folks.
This has caused a rift in our city and a dilemma for many Austinites who I know don’t believe in the “criminalization of homelessness” but, nevertheless, are understandably concerned about the rise in visible homelessness in our city.
I think there are some who are more concerned about the fact that homelessness is visible than they are actually concerned about the well-being of our homeless population. Some folks do want to re-criminalize homelessness and, however sincere they may be in their beliefs, some are using this issue for personal or professional political gain.
But I’m not talking about that group. They know exactly what they’re doing.
I’m talking about my friend who, as we sipped beer a few weeks back, told me about how he and his son went into a public restroom and found a homeless individual inside working on his bike. They didn’t feel threatened, only inconvenienced that they didn’t feel like they could use the restroom.
I’m talking about a friend who emailed me a couple of months ago to say that she and her husband weren’t able to send their kids to the park because a homeless individual had set up a camp in the play area. They also didn’t feel threatened—they brought food and asked if this person needed anything, asked how they could help, spent time calling homeless service organizations to see if there was anything that could be done—but they understandably didn’t want to send their young children to the park alone.
I’m talking about friends who have felt threatened while out on a walk or a run. I know people who, in some instances been chased by an individual who may be experiencing a mental health crisis. I, myself, have been chased before. Not in Austin, but in San Francisco, my wife, a friend and I were chased by a homeless individual while trying to find the entrance to the BART station.
I understand and can empathize with all of this.
I believe these instances are uncommon, but they should be taken seriously. Public safety concerns are legitimate and shouldn’t be ignored. Putting the ban back in place wouldn’t mean homelessness is suddenly solved, though. It wouldn’t mean tents would suddenly disappear around Austin. These folks I talked to know this, and I think it’s disingenuous for people who are pushing “Yes” on Prop B to insinuate that it will.
The homelessness crisis is at least four crises in one: an economic crisis, a housing crisis, a mental health and substance use crisis, and a racial equity crisis.
We need a plan that addresses all four.
Don’t be gaslit: A “Yes” on Prop B does not do that.
Putting a plan together that does address all four is going to require the entire community’s effort, and collaboration between Austin City Council, state and federal government, as well as the private and nonprofit sectors. That’s why I’m encouraged to see and be involved in a community-wide, weeks-long summit to address homelessness in a way that respects the human dignity of our homeless population and takes seriously our need to develop comprehensive solutions that reduce unsheltered homelessness and improve public safety in Austin.
You don’t fix an economic crisis with fines and jail-time, you fix it by investing in people.
You don’t fix a housing crisis with fines and jail-time, you fix it with more housing.
You don’t fix a mental health and substance use issue with fines and jail-time, you fix it with better mental health treatment options.
You don’t fix a racial equity issue with fines and jail-time, you fix it with all-of-the-above, with investment and attention focused specifically in Black and brown communities.
I’m voting “No” on Prop B because to truly, meaningfully reduce homelessness, we don’t need a ban, we need a plan.
It’s important that we keep our eye on the ball and hold Austin City Council accountable for developing and communicating progress on that plan consistently once it’s adopted. I think this community-wide summit should have happened a long time ago, but I’m glad it’s happening now. There are legitimate concerns that need to be addressed, and to do this effectively is going to require compassion, patience, and smart, community-led investment in some stuff that we might have to wait a bit to see returns on.
These investments are worth making because all people are worth investing in.