Statement to Austin City Council on Homelessness Ordinances 

As members of Undoing White Supremacy Austin, we strongly support changes to the Austin Municipal ordinances related to camping, solicitation, and foundational human activities such as sitting and lying in public spaces. However, we strongly oppose the addition of the “aggressive confrontation” clause in the ordinance that deals with solicitation. It goes against our values as a community and has to be removed.

These ordinances place the comfort of White and wealthy people before the survival of some of the most vulnerable members of our community. They funnel people already facing the danger and hopelessness of being without a home into jails and impossible debt. How can we tell someone they cannot shelter themselves or ask others for assistance when that is one of their only avenues for survival? Ordinances that make it more difficult and dangerous to be homeless are not the answer. Instead of pursuing humane solutions to reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness, we have shifted the responsibility to the criminal justice system which is both more traumatic for those targeted and more expensive for all of us. 

The City of Austin has created this crisis of homelessness for our most vulnerable neighbors. We have chosen to invest in policies that spur displacement and perpetuate poverty while at the same time deprioritizing investment in jobs that pay livable wages, and in affordable housing for low income people. We have put the interests of business owners and short term tourism concerns over the lives of people experiencing homelessness, who are disproportionately people of color. We have put in place increasingly punitive laws that attempt to push the homeless out of sight because we don’t want to live with the discomfort of the consequences of these choices. We don’t want to feel the discomfort when people approach our cars asking for help, or when we drive through the city and witness people living on the streets or under the overpasses. This is part of how systemic racism works, criminalizing people, especially people of color, in order to promote White people’s comfort. Many of us have benefited from these policies advancing our comfort and business interests and have not taken steps to become more aware and involved. In that way we are complicit.

We support the City Council’s proposal to change the ordinances on camping and sitting/lying in public spaces. As members of Undoing White Supremacy Austin, we would like to take a moment to address the proposed changes to the ordinance on solicitation to focus on “aggressive confrontation.” As White people seeking to understand and undermine the impact of white supremacy on white bodies and white minds, and how that translates into trauma to to non-white bodies and minds, the text of this ordinance raises very serious concerns. We’ve all heard of the rash of 911 calls made by fearful white people, in which Black people are targeted while going about their everyday lives. The imagined harm to white people becomes real trauma to people of color. There are already laws to address harassment, stalking, disorderly conduct and the other behaviors outlined in this ordinance. There is no reason to create a special set of “homeless codes” to set a different legal standard for people who do not have access to housing. We also know that when we give more discretion to the police the rates of citations rise and increasingly target people of color. The only solution for not continuing to criminalize homelessness and poverty is for these ordinances to be completely abolished.

We should repeal these ordinances today. But it is the minimum we can do. Rather than continuing policies that advance gentrification and displace our community — such as the “trickle down” of a few not really “affordable” units here and there from developers in exchange for more luxury housing —  let’s build homes and provide services for those currently without permanent shelter. Let’s use the funds saved by diverting jail expenses by abolishing these ordinances to provide mental health and recovery services. Let’s use Brackenridge to provide housing, medical assistance and services to the homeless population. The continued gentrification of our community is displacing people and potentially adding to homelessness. We need resources going to support real affordable housing in addition to shelters. If we want Austin to be a leader in equity, should it not be for those who have the least among us? How we decide to treat our fellow residents who need help is a clear expression of our values as a community. 

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