On May 1, 2021 a political action committee convinced voters to pass an ordinance forcing the City of Austin to ticket people who violate the ‘no camping ordinance’ within the city limits. This was contrary to guidelines by the Center for Disease Control which recommended that communities leave people alone to shelter in place until the pandemic is passed, or take advantage of the FEMA and other recovery programs to pay for hotel rooms for the population. NCH has documented 40 of the 100 largest cities has also undertaken sweeps over the last year contrary to CDC guidelines. The City began warning people to leave their tents in June and then began ticketing people in July.
Proposition B was passed in a special election with only 20% of the voters actually bothering to show up. The dubiously named “Save Austin Now” PAC spent $1.9 million to convince Austin voters to be afraid of people who are unhoused. The legislation also demanded a crackdown on panhandling, despite sweeping judicial protection of the right panhandle. So, a deeply flawed law which violates the constitution and basic humanity for those struggling during a pandemic passed by voters and implemented by local law enforcement began to make criminals out of those who lost their housing in one of the most expensive places to live in the South.
A number of Austin-based groups led by people who have experienced homelessness reached out and asked for help from the National Coalition for the Homeless. We worked with local groups to draft this national sign-on letter, asking for the Austin city officials to act in favor of humanity and refuse to further criminalize people for having nowhere to go. We are not taking additional endorsements at this time. If you have questions, please e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org
There is news that the Orwellian-sounding Save Austin Now, along with four local businesses, were filing suit against the City of Austin for not enforcing Proposition B against enough unhoused people. The City has denied the charges stating that 18 tickets were issued over the last month. The City of Austin has attempted to place more of the unhoused into hotels, but has not used much of their HUD emergency assistance to give housing relief to those struggling because of the pandemic. In an attempt to pile on, the state also passed HB 1925 which prevents local government from not enforcing anti-camping ordinances.
The millions that have been spent in this effort to criminalize people for being poor by the Texas government and governor, as well as “Save Austin Now” political action committee could have been much better used in ensuring safe, accessible housing for Austin residents!!
After the Peachtree-Pine Shelter was forced by the city of Atlanta to close its doors in 2017, Anita Beaty has remained dedicated to activist efforts in the homeless community, continuing her decades-long career advocating and providing for those in need. Beaty, who oversaw the Peachtree-Pine Shelter for twenty years, has worked in the homeless community for much longer, her history of activism stretching as far back as the eighties. Whether it was activism or overseeing the shelter, Beaty consistently abided by a philosophy that no one should be left behind or left out. She has always placed high value on “letting the people who needed the service run the service,” and described how this philosophy of care for others informed her activism through the years.
In one story, Beaty described a march she organized every year for twenty-nine years to celebrate homeless memorial day on November 1st. Various shelters, congregational groups, or other facilities would carry banners representing their group, made in the Peachtree-Pine art studio, along with a procession of crosses with the names of homeless people who had died that year. Each year, she recalled, there would be around 60 to 80 crosses. The procession finished at the Cathedral, where there would be a ceremony addressing the issue of homelessness, with a Litany created by the Task Force, and remembrances of the dead, name by name.
Beaty and her organization, the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, would hire buses to pick people up at every shelter that would participate, and the cathedral served them a hot meal. Looking back, Beaty recalled the event with fondness for the community it fostered.
Beaty also reflected that a key component of her personal philosophy was an element of playfulness. “I need to enjoy what I do,” she said. In one story she recounted, Beaty and the Task Force were protesting the improvement project the city of Atlanta was undertaking at Woodruff Park prior to their hosting of the 1996 Summer Olympics. The park had been a gathering place for members of the homeless community, so when the mayor of Atlanta showed up in a hard hat for a photo-op groundbreaking on the construction, several of the protestors laid in the hole the mayor was to stand in, completely preventing their chance at a photo-op. Beaty chuckled as she recalled how the mayor’s face turned purple with rage, and when he retreated to his car the protestors followed, and it looked as if he was the one leading the march. Beaty also recalled a city council meeting they attended, when she handed out signs to everyone with them that said “true,” “false,” and “bald-faced lie.” When one of the council members said something about homelessness, the crowd held up their “bald-faced lie” signs, and Beaty recalled it was “hysterical” as the council member tried to talk down the signs.
The visual arts have always been a major part of Beaty’s activism. During her time as its leader, Beaty opened an art studio at Peachtree-Pine, where shelter residents could come to draw, paint, and be creative. Beaty sometimes brought in artists from around the country, especially artists who had been homeless or experienced similar struggles. They “had a ball with us,” she remembered. “It was so exciting to intentionally bring in like-minded people who can show folks who’ve been excluded from all that that they, too, can dream.” Beaty emphasized that giving shelter residents access to resources that they would not otherwise have access to was a way of lifting them up: “There are artists who don’t even know it, don’t have the leisure to explore that, or could become artists and become part of that culture.” Beaty’s art studio is living proof that art has the power to bring out the best in people who are experiencing homelessness, mental health issues, or other problems. Not only that, Beaty noted that putting shelter residents’ work on display helped to bust public stereotypes about them.
“Let’s break the mythology,” she said. “Let’s take care of the fear by being together in fun places: food, art, coffee.”
Beaty is sure to acknowledge that activist efforts do not always turn out the way we hope they will. When she took part in the Housing Now March on Washington in 1989, she recalls the immense expectations they had: “It was an action that we thought was gonna change the world, change this country at least, and sensitize the policymakers to the absolute necessity of changing laws,” she remembered. Obviously, the march did not have the effect Beaty and its organizers hoped it would. The funding of a growing homelessness services “industry” was a direct result, but the right to housing, permanent affordable accessible housing, was then and is still the emergency need.
But Beaty also believes the march did make a difference, even if it wasn’t on the wide scale she had hoped it would. “Success is relative,” she said, recalling many times when she thought an effort she was part of was more successful than it was. But activism can still be successful, even if it’s in the smallest of ways. One outcome that Beaty pointed out from the Housing Now March was HUD policy, which, she says, she is still looking at to determine how it has evolved over the decades since the march.
Beaty’s long career in activism shows us that success, whether small or large, can be found through determination to make a difference and a passion for celebrating inclusion. It is the stories of activists like Beaty that have the most to teach us about how to make change happen, and Beaty’s stories remind us that change happens in and with communities, leaving no one behind, including the excluded in operating, managing, and developing of all services designated for those very people, and working together to foster a just and creative world.
Many people experiencing homelessness reject the shelters based on reputation or bad personal experiences within the system. From theft to staff mistreatment, the shelter system in the United States has gone from emergency housing by people of good will to permanent institutional incarceration. I hear all the time, those without housing begging for someone who will understand and will listen in order to help them steer through this most difficult time in their lives. The amount of danger living on the streets is far greater, but there is a degree of freedom outside. US citizens love their freedom. The tremendous loss associated with homelessness in the destruction of family relationships and the giving up all your valuables is often too much to bare for some. These individuals accept their fate as a forever condition and stop trying to find housing or stability.
This is a mock groundbreaking that a group of artists staged in Cleveland for the development of a new women’s shelter designed, built and run by those experiencing homelessness. It never materialized but it was a good idea.
Unfortunately, the social service system is not built to be supportive of the unique needs of most of the population. It is built to be cost effective, sterile, with a rigid code of conduct. It is run like a military barracks with curfews, lights out, no pets or anything comfortable, a schedule for eating, rules and mandates that many compare to a jail that kicks out everyone in the morning who then voluntarily return at night. It is not the shelter provider’s fault. They are dealt a hand that would be impossible to manage in the best of times with full employment, universal health care and cheap housing. The shelters are stuffed every day full of people with multiple barriers to housing. They are regularly over-capacity and the only way to keep order is with strict lock down type procedures. This is the system we have built in the United States. We have created a mental health/ drug treatment system disguised as a homeless system.
We need a safe space for those experiencing homelessness to come to relax, listen and talk about the issues they are facing. We need alumni to come back and be willing to provide some advice to their peers. We need the people who oversee local homeless funding to come to the space as guests and hear from those struggling with housing about the messy system they have created. Those without housing need to push community leaders to make changes in a timely manner and then come back to show that these changes are in the works. The unhoused need help with the mundane like cutting through the bureaucracy of getting ID to the major undertakings of getting a crime from 12 years ago expunged from their record. They need government to get their boots off their necks and not be so tied to the sacred property rights of abandoned housing/warehouses/land. They need landlords, employers, health care professionals to forgive and see every person entering the office for their humanity and not their past mistakes or solely their economic status in society. If we provided safe spaces, leaders would emerge to push good ideas to provide affordable housing to the masses. A million good ideas would bloom. Some would work and some would fail, but in the end fewer people would give up and sleep on the nation’s sidewalk.