Open Letter to Austin’s White Women Council Members

Dear City of Austin Council members, 

We, the undersigned, as White women members of Undoing White Supremacy Austin’s (UWSA) organizing team applaud your wise and moral action in June 2019 to change and repeal ordinances that criminalize people experiencing homelessness in our community. We ask you to stand firm in your resolution that a homes-first policy is the humane and sensible course of action. The call to protect White women has historically been the excuse for the most horrible violence against Black bodies. We refuse to allow calls for our safety to justify violence against people in our Austin community experiencing homelessness.

We  thank you for your bold and progressive actions to begin the process of ending  homelessness in Austin. The same visible presence of people who don’t have access to housing in our community that is now inspiring fear in some residents is what is necessary for our city to more accurately assess the challenge and connect people with housing and needed services. People experiencing homelessness must be visible and active participants in this process; they must not be “disappeared” into jails or isolated locations to avoid enforcement. 

The issue of safety has been discussed at length by people who oppose the ordinance change. We agree that this is a vital concern. However, those who are most at risk from harm and a lack of safety are, in fact, individuals experiencing homelessness. They have always been and continue to be the most victimized. Your ordinance change has decreased the danger to this population; they are no longer forced to sleep in creek beds, fire breaks, or remote woods and no longer face the dangers of incarceration simply for trying to find a place to rest. They are able to be closer to much needed services without the threat of losing all they have if arrested. 

Chief Manley has stated repeatedly that the crime rate has not risen as a result of the ordinance changes. And yet some members of the community say they do not feel safe.  We believe that there is a confusion between feeling “uncomfortable” and actually being physically threatened. As White people, especially White women, we take for granted that our comfort will be assured. Seeing the number of people living in the difficult situation of being on the street is uncomfortable. These are our neighbors, members of our community and their plight makes us feel many uncomfortable emotions. However, feeling uncomfortable is not a threat to our safety, and we must all be honest and forthright about this distinction when addressing residents’ concerns. 

Additionally, the actions of some police officers, who, when called, say that they can do nothing (sometimes in situations not allowed by these ordinances), and tell citizens to “Call your council person” make citizens confused and exacerbate feelings that things are out of control and hence less safe. These police officers are the ones making things less safe by spreading misinformation and refusing to respond to safety concerns resulting from violations outside the scope of these ordinances. We urge you to work with the Austin Police Department to educate department staff regarding the reasons behind decriminalization and the goal of Austin as a humane city that is welcoming for all and to remind them that their job is to protect and serve all people. 

We also know that there is a strong racial element to this call for “safety” by those who oppose decriminalization. Those experiencing homelessness are predominantly people of color. Gentrification, lack of opportunity, and criminalization have decimated the number of Black people in Austin and contributed to their number being as much as nine times higher than Whites in those experiencing homelessness. We believe that the many people speaking out about “safety” without any data to indicate changes in the crime rate are, in fact, playing out internalized (and often unconscious) racist stereotypes of White women being threatened by men of color and the drive to protect White women’s fragility  If we were to look closely at where all women really experience a lack of safety in our community, it would lead us to investigate the culture of intimate partner violence — particularly on campus but throughout this city —  that allows date rape to thrive and be vastly under reported, and, when reported, allows sexual assault cases to be vastly under prosecuted.

We recognize that the recent ordinance changes are just the first step in a broader plan to tackle the scourge of homelessness in a holistic and creative way, calling on all residents of Austin to contribute and take responsibility. We are committed to supporting this broader plan and contribute our time and resources. We urge you to stand strong and not cave to reactionary forces and fears based on racist and White supremacist tropes by re-introducing criminal penalties for sleeping and resting in public

It is time to live up to the reputation we espouse as a progressive city. We must put the humanity of those who are the most vulnerable before our need to feel comfortable. We must take responsibility for the racist policies of the past and call it out when it is present in the moment. If we persevere in the policy you have set us upon we can trade the sadness, guilt and discomfort we are feeling now for pride and accountability.

Andrea Black, District 1

Lauren Ross, District 5

Rachel Manning, District 1

Sandra Molinari, District 3

Bethany Carson, District 4

Julia Von Alexander, District 7

Donna Hoffman, District 1

Doris Adams, District 5

Robin Schneider, District 9

Christel Erickson Collins

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