On the turning away
From the pale and downtrodden
And the words they say
Which we won’t understand
Don’t accept that what’s happening
Is just a case of others’ suffering
Or you’ll find that you’re joining in
The turning away
Proponents of Austin’s Proposition B (election day is May 1, early voting has already begun) argue that by making it a criminal offense “to sit, lie down, or camp in public areas,” the blight of Austin’s homelessness problem — now visible more than ever on the city’s streets, underpasses, trails and parks — will be removed from sight.
They are right.
Which is why Proposition B should be defeated.
In order for Austin to systematically and humanely manage its growing homeless population, we need to see just how bad the problem is.
The Problem Right in Front of Us
When a 20-year-old ordinance banning camping and panhandling in public spaces was rolled back by Austin’s City Council in June 2019, few imagined the highly visible consequences — nor the impacts on the homeless population itself.
Indeed, last year there was found to be nearly a 45% increase in the local unsheltered population from the year before. (A new count for 2021 by the Ending Community Homeless Coalition was called off due to Covid-19 concerns.) It’s possible, if not likely, that the eased restrictions have driven this increase.
One need not go far in Austin to see the effects of removing the camping ban. Along highways, beneath underpasses, on the corners of downtown streets, and even along the city’s treasured Butler Hike and Bike trail along Lady Bird Lake, tents are everywhere. Reports of harassment and dangerous encounters with the homeless population are up — while the homeless themselves are also targets of a greater amount of harassment and complaints.
But if there’s one thing both supporters and critics of Proposition B agree on, it’s that the end result will not solve or fix this problem.
All it will do is determine whether the homeless will remain in tents throughout the city, or thrown in jail or ticketed for a misdemeanor offense.
Neither option is desired nor sustainable. The lifting of the ban on camping has forced the city and its growing number of residents to confront its homelessness population. We literally see it like never before. And it makes some people uncomfortable. Hell, it should make us all uncomfortable.
We can no longer ignore the problem, pretending it — and the people who comprise this population — don’t exist. That’s what the supporters of Prop B want: not to solve the problem, but to take it out of sight.
But human beings are not dust bunnies to be swept up and disposed of.
It’s a sin that somehow
Light is changing to shadow
And casting its shroud over all we have known
Unaware how the ranks have grown
Driven on by a heart of stone
We could find that we’re all alone
In the dream of the proud
We Can Do Better — and Have
There is hope, contained in the evidence of solutions, or potential solutions, that are showing signs of a way out, a better way.
In response to the growth of tent camps throughout the city, Austin moved forward with the HEAL initiative, which aims to connect those suffering from homelessness with shelters and housing.
The city is also purchasing hotels that are going out of business, and converting them into housing. This is what happens, incidentally, when a city decides to defund the police. Instead of paying law enforcement to issue misdemeanor tickets and physically uproot people from the streets into jails, the city instead pays to house those same people.
And local non-profits have innovated solutions as well. Mobile Loaves and Fishes is expanding its Community First! village, adding more tiny housing units to those moving out of homelessness and creating a more sustainable community.
The organization recently announced 1,400 more units will be built. Imagine how many could be built if the supporters of Proposition B had put their money behind an initiative such as this rather than trying to pay the city to get the homeless population out of the way so our trails and streets can look nice.
A Years-Long Problem Will Take Years to Fix
No matter the fate of Proposition B, it will take years (and a lot more money) for Austin to continue to help the homeless. But get used to that.
As we begin to exit the pandemic, we will awaken to a full plate of problems that will take the rest of our lives to fix — and we don’t have that kind of time.
All the issues we knew about, all the problems we knew our society had, all of the things we either pretended not to notice or decided to resign ourselves to because the solutions seemed too difficult and the problems too intractable — we have to deal with them now.
It will take years to solve the harmful effects of our changing climate. It will take years to address the financial inequity in our society. It will take years to address the imbalance caretakers endure — which has gotten much worse during the pandemic. It will take years to ensure every American has access to health care.
Oh, and for Texans, it will also take years to fix that pesky problem known as our power grid. If you thought enduring freezing temperatures for a few days was bad, just wait until the grid fails again during summer.
Austin is booming. The richest of the rich are moving here. The housing market is through the roof.
Welcome to town, folks. These problems are now yours. Ours.
And pretending they don’t exist won’t help.
No more turning away
From the weak and the weary
No more turning away from the coldness inside
Just a world that we all must share
It’s not enough just to stand and stare
Is it only a dream that there’ll be
No more turning away?
Passing Proposition B will hide Austin’s homelessness problem. It will take out of sight what we now cannot deny exists.
Don’t turn away, but look. Look and see, at the effects of our changing climate.
Don’t turn away, but look. Look and see, at how women have been unfairly burdened during the pandemic.
Don’t turn away, but look. Look and see, how much caretakers, whether they are parents, teachers, or home care attendants, are a part of the infrastructure of our daily lives.
Don’t turn away, but look. Look and see how our power grid is failing us.
Don’t turn away, but look. Look and see how our criminal justice system is inherently unfair, brutal, cruel and unequal to people of color.
Don’t turn away from the problem of homelessness, but look. Look and see at the people with nowhere else to go, exposed to the elements, surviving on their wits and the extent of our compassion for them.
A Better Community for Us All
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Evicted,” journalist Matthew Desmond writes, “residential stability begets a kind of psychological stability, which allows people to invest in their home and social relationships. It begets school stability, which increases the chances that children will excel and graduate. And it begets community stability, which encourages neighbors to form strong bonds and take care of their block.”
Those camped in tents beneath the underpasses and along Lady Bird Lake are our neighbors. If we’ve learned anything during the pandemic, it’s how interconnected we are with both the natural world and with each other. If we help those suffering homelessness, we don’t just help them, we help ourselves.
Don’t shovel aside people out of concern for your property values. Don’t sic our unfair and unequal justice system on those without a home.
Don’t turn away. Just the opposite.
Look. Look hard. And then help solve this problem, and then the next one. This is our new normal. Get used to dealing with social problems that won’t just disappear unless we commit to fixing them, rather than putting them out of sight.
Vote your conscience on Prop B. But don’t turn away.
Lyrics from “On the Turning Away,” by Pink Floyd
Previously Published on Medium