25 Mar News Brief: Austin Activists Combat Anti-Homeless Stigma in ‘Prop B’ Media Fight
Citations Needed | March 24, 2021 | Transcript
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to a Citations Needed News Brief. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: We do these News Briefs in between our regularly scheduled episodes when there is something a bit more pressing to discuss. We are still on our spring break, and Adam, you are still transitioning back to the show from your parental leave, which is ongoing. Congratulations to you, new dad.
Adam: Evidently, yes, I’m enjoying it very much, I’ll spare you the personal schmaltz, we try to avoid that in the show, but kid is great, love him to death. Got a good attitude.
Nima: He’s a winner.
Adam: Very sweet, pees on me all the time. Moving on. We’ve been following and connected with a group of activists in Austin who helped us facilitate our episode on Incitement Against the Homeless two-parter we did in 2019, and as it turns out, there’s a really important vote coming up on something called Prop B which is going to criminalize the existence of homeless people.
Nima: Right. Recriminalize incidentally.
Adam: Yeah, another way of criminalizing by actually making it illegal to camp and lay down on public property, which means you are now making it impossible to be homeless and criminalizing the existence of homeless people. So we wanted to have them on to talk about this, talk about how the media is covering it, there’s a huge PR campaign by the Republican Party of Travis County, in a loose allegiance with some centrist, NIMBY types that we think is very toxic and sort of shows the how these propaganda anti-homeless sentiments manifest into policy, specifically violent policy, which is what’s being proposed here, and make no mistake, this will lead to years in prison and shootings and other things. So we wanted to have a couple of the activists on to talk about this and to talk about how activists are pushing back against these right-wing, anti-homeless tropes in the Austin area, and of course, these are applicable to places outside of Austin, but it’s where I went to school, so we’re biased, so go with it.
Nima: Yeah. In just a moment, we’ll be joined by two guests: Chris Harris, a native Texan and advocate working to transform the criminal legal system currently serves as the Director of Criminal Justice Programs for Texas Appleseed, a public interest nonprofit that promotes social and economic justice for all Texans, as well as Seneca Savoie, a community organizer from Austin, Texas, formerly unhoused and currently a member of Austin DSA, Seneca has been active on many local campaigns for justice, including the original Homes Not Handcuffs Initiative, which we discussed on our previous episodes about homelessness. Now, before we get to our guests though, there’s an article recently from Jacobin in February of 2021, which discussed the ongoing fight over decriminalizing and then recriminalizing homelessness in Austin, Texas. The article, authored by Anna Joaquin and Gabe Kokoszka, does a really good job of kind of laying out some of the background for what we’re seeing there, which I’m going to quote a bit before we talk to our guests. It’s just a good way to sort of, as we say, set the table. So this is from the Jacobin article from February 22, 2021 entitled, “A Key Fight Against Criminalizing Homelessness Is Playing Out in Austin, Texas,” and it says this, quote:
Cities across the United States are facing affordable housing crises, and Austin, Texas — growing faster than any other metropolitan area in the country — is no exception. As Austin’s housing costs rise, so does its unhoused population. According to the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition’s 2020 point-in-time count, homelessness in Austin hit a ten-year high last year. Like many municipalities, Austin’s response has generally been to eschew permanent housing solutions and resort to homeless criminalization — prohibiting sitting/lying, camping, and soliciting in public, and forcing these problems out of the public eye.
A 2017 city audit confirmed that the criminalization of these life-sustaining activities in Austin creates barriers to exiting homelessness, and a 2018 report by Grassroots Leadership and Gathering Ground Theatre substantiated those findings. Documenting the experiences of people directly impacted by city ordinances punishing sitting/lying, camping, and soliciting, their report established that job loss, release from jail, domestic violence, and scarce mental health and addiction support are primary causes of homelessness. Police enforcement through ticketing and arrests only aggravates these causes, contributing to a lack of rest, harm to physical and mental health, and difficulty securing sustained employment and housing.
The dangers of over-policing are compounded by the persistence of Austin’s racialized housing disparities. To this day, people of color in Travis County are 1.5 times more likely than white people to experience homelessness, and despite 35 percent of people of color in Travis County being black, black people represent 57 percent of people of color experiencing homelessness. Current spikes in COVID-19 cases at the Travis County jail only emphasize the cruelty of over-policing, directing harm toward black and brown people most liberal Austinites would like to claim matter.
Adam: Yeah, that pretty much sums it up and, you know, we don’t usually do a lot of direct policy advocacy, we do a very thinly veiled policy advocacy to maintain our pretense of being above the fray. This is a instance where it’s a very real and immediate, very dangerous policy initiative that’s being played out in the media that we think deserves a little bit intervention and to highlight and also to understand that these kinds of anti-camping movements that are being funded by large local businesses and even some national corporations through these right-wing organizations, sometimes in concert with so-called bipartisan groups, are popping up in other cities as well. So we do think it’s applicable to other cities and I think will only get worse as homelessness gets worse, which we now know, especially after COVID it will and will continue to get worse.
Nima: To discuss this more, we’re now going to be joined by Seneca Savoie and Chris Harris, community organizers from Austin, Texas. They’re gonna join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Seneca Savoie and Chris Harris, community organizers in Austin, Texas. Seneca and Chris, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Chris Harris: Thanks for having us.
Seneca Savoie: Great to be here.
Adam: Yes and thanks again for your help. We had a two part episode on the media’s treatment of homelessness in the fall of 2019, this is kind of a follow-up on that because as our listeners may be shocked to learn the war on the homeless is still going on. The bourgeoisie has not conceded that one. So I want to begin by kind of updating our listeners on the situation specifically in Austin, we talked about Austin a lot, could because I went to school there, so we have a bias, but it does seem like a city where it has every vector, if you will, of shitstorm in terms of very expensive housing, it’s a red state with I think some would argue is somewhat hypocritical, kind of supposedly liberal base that has an overlap with the cleanup-the-streets, Charles Bronson crowd, I want to begin the conversation by kind of updating what’s going on in Austin to give the listeners a sense of what the political stakes are, what Prop B is exactly and I think the most important of all, who is sort of behind Prop B? What are the forces kind of pushing it in the media and in public relations?
Chris Harris: Yeah, sure. So Prop B is an effort really to overturn the rollback, the curtailing of local ordinances that criminalize homelessness here in Austin. So we had three main ordinances, an anti-camping ordinance, sit/lie prohibition and a panhandling or otherwise called solicitation prohibition that really just targeted and singled out people experiencing homelessness for citations, which turned into warrants, which turned into jail. We led about an 18 month long campaign from 2017 into 2019, we were able to significantly curtail those ordinances resulting in really no tickets now being given out for these unavoidable behaviors for people experiencing homelessness, but ever since we did it, there’s just been this, you know, horrible backlash particularly led by right-wing forces but obviously, as you mentioned, there’s definitely some, you know, liberal overlap with that. They’re now in their second attempt to put a ballot measure on and they’ve successfully now got it on the ballot for May 1, to not only reinstate the old ordinances, but actually to make them worse, in certain ways than before by expanding their scope and really the people at the heart of this are the local Republican Party, so the Travis County Republican Party. Their leadership has spun up what they’re calling an educational nonprofit that first fought a homeless shelter, and now has been leading the charge to reinstate and strengthen these ordinances here.
Seneca Savoie: I would also call out the role of the Austin Police Association, which is, of course, overlapping with but distinct from the Republican Party. One of the core players is Ken Casaday, who if you do a little bit of search on you’re gonna find a wealth of information about, but has been very well known for kind of his callousness and in defense of a broad police authority and discretion, and particularly the death of Garrett Foster last year.
Nima: Yeah, I mean, I think there’s so much that kind of goes into this, this whole like, you know, keep Austin weird liberalism, but that really just always merges with this want to kind of close your eyes, not have to see the, you know, unsightly things, things like, say, homelessness or poverty and so there are these kind of very liberal things going on in Austin, I think it’s coming to a head here, but Seneca, what is your impression of the media coverage around Prop B?
Seneca Savoie: Yeah, I think that’s one of the core elements, you find that the kind of stenography about how they’re putting out their press releases, representing themselves as being, you know, an educational or an advocacy group, despite their initial petition drive had more recensions — that is people saying, ‘I signed this and I want my name taken off of it’ — then any in Austin history due to just incredibly deceptive practices in the process of gathering petitions, and then once again, constantly repeating the claim that they’re a bipartisan group and things along these lines solely because of the inclusion of one person who basically just voted for Joe Biden, isn’t a member of any, you know, democratic apparatus, clubs, participated in any major campaigns, et cetera.
Nima: But that’s what unity means, right? (Laughs.) We’re gonna get one Biden voter and now we’re all of a sudden bipartisan.
Chris Harris: Yeah, that’s right and, you know, I think your read on is exactly right and honestly, that’s an improvement over where it was in the immediate aftermath of decriminalization in the summer 2019. I think honestly a lot of the local media were properly shamed and luckily the story became big enough that a lot of other media from outside, you know, the local, particularly TV stations, started covering it and actually showing, hey, actually, you might want to talk to some unhoused folks, you might want to talk to people who organize and build with these folks, but even still, I think there’s a real reluctance to in any way challenge Save Austin Now on its claims as it relates to both what the impacts of the proposition are, or will be, as well as who they are and what they are made up of, and really not allowing them to, again, claim bipartisanship, despite the fact literally every, you know, to their credit, every major democratic politician locally has come out against it.
Adam: Yeah, I want to talk a bit about this rhetorical sausage-making that goes on when we talk about homelessness, you know, it’s one of those interesting things when you study it as a media topic everybody has the same general line, even the far right will even kind of traffic in this line, that we want to house the homeless, we want to quote-unquote “take care of” the homeless problem, which could mean give someone a house or commit genocide, right? “Take care of” is rather vague, I oftentimes think, of course, they mean the latter, not the former and it seems like especially when it comes to administrative or kind of leadership roles, you begin to sort of see this creep happen where even supposed liberals or do-goody liberals begin to morph into this, their quote-unquote “solutions” sound awfully like just policing. We played a clip in the last episode, Episode 132, it was a little bit of an aside in the episode, but it was basically about the way in which policing was always seen as a solution and they actually made the argument, the local KVUE TV station was arguing in earnest and allowed the police to assert unchallenged this idea that policing, I believe the exact term they used was connect homeless people to services, right? So they’re gonna arrest you and put you in jail, but it’s for your own good. And I want to talk about how some of the sleight of hand happens because even the Prop B side will say, you know, one of the things you see when you see these protests, you see these kind of right-wing protests anytime the city buys a hotel for homeless people, or there’s a new homeless shelter that goes into a neighborhood, and nobody wants to go out with a protest sign and say, ‘Fuck the homeless, kick him out of the city,’ right? Because that’s evil. So they say like, ‘Oh, no, no,’ there’s always some sort of concern they have, like, ‘we don’t have the right facilities, it’s not good for them,’ or this, this or that. I want to talk about some of the sleight of hand that happens, especially not just on the right, but like you said, the kind of liberal NIMBY center, about how do you address this sort of gray area where someone says, ‘Okay, well, I’m the czar of homelessness, and I’m gonna help solve it,’ but then you kind of look at the fine print, and you’re like, wait a second, this is just another policing mechanism, or another way of pushing, for example in Florida they pay homeless people to leave, right? That is their humane system is to do this exodus. So I want to talk about that kind of rhetoric and how you guys parse through that bullshit, especially when it comes to the center-left approach?
Chris Harris: I mean, it’s tough for me, yeah, you look to the next town down our freeways in San Antonio, and, you know, it is ostensibly democratically run, but their solution has long been basically a facility where you can’t be on any substances and once you’re in is really difficult to leave. There’s services there, but there’s all these barriers to entry and barriers to exit and eventually a lot of these solutions end up looking more and more like a jail, right? And occasionally, like you said, you’ll hear people actually slip and it’s like, well, we want folks to have a place where they can go, and it could have all these things, and it would have a really high barbed wire fence around it. So starting off with just the notion of housing first, I think as a sort of principle that we are approaching the topic from, that ultimately, the solution here is real housing that’s available to folks and whatever needs people have beyond housing are really going to best be met by first getting folks or allowing folks to be in housing is ultimately how we get there because for so many, it’s really just about public space management and order. They really don’t care what happens to folks once they’re off the street, they just want them out of sight and out of mind, and yeah, it would make them feel better if they thought where they were at was nice and was helping them and was giving them some stuff, but ultimately, they don’t really care as long as it’s out of sight and out of mind and so we are really just fighting solutions that don’t start with housing. Temporary shelters are good in the snowstorm like we just had, but they’re in no way going to be a replacement for something that allows someone to rest their head for as long as they need and have autonomy in that space with the partners they choose, the pets they choose, doing the activities they choose, being a full person with, you know, all the same rights and privileges as anyone would expect. So that’s where we start from or at least try to in all these conversations.
Seneca Savoie: Yeah, I think there are a few things that are kind of instructive. The first is the particular way that the police talk about it, which they do use the “connect to services” rhetoric that you mentioned earlier. So if you were to look up testimony from our former Chief Brian Manley, or from many times Ken Casaday, the basic assumption is that interaction with the state has to be mediated with the police in some way, right? There are many times we’ll say it’s impossible to connect somebody to services without the police, without the police having coercive power, in particular, that they have to be able to threaten you with something in order for you to be connected with services and this is a particularly pernicious myth. So one of the other things that I do is I am one of the Commissioners of the Downtown Austin Community Court, which when the police say our enforcement connects people to services, that’s the thing that they’re talking about and the way that works is that people who are kind of frequent customers of the criminal justice system in the downtown area, after they get to a certain level of contact with the criminal justice system, will have access to case management possibly, but this is an incredibly ineffective model. By the time somebody is talking to a social worker through Downtown Austin Community Court, they’ve had at least nine negative interactions with police, right? And it’s important to note that these routinized, negative interactions don’t just color people’s perception of the police but the state in general. There’s a really good study of traffic stops in North Carolina that showed that previous exposure to searches, for example, will negatively correlate with people’s odds of voting, applying for any kind of benefits they’re entitled to et cetera, because people’s perception of the legitimacy of the state, of their reliability to get things out of it declines as they have less positive interactions of the state and so there’s no reason why step one get into housing has to be you can’t sleep here, right? That first interaction does nothing to encourage a compliant sense of self efficacy, et cetera. So, that’s the first thing.
Adam: Yeah, because it seems like there’s a contingent of people who just want it out of the fucking way, and they really don’t care what happens. They don’t care if they’re given, maybe they don’t even care if they’re given a home I guess as long as their taxes don’t go up, but they don’t even care if they’re liquidated, ‘Just get them the fuck out of my way, I want to walk from my house, to my goddamn Starbucks and I don’t want to have to deal with the fucking homeless people and I don’t care if we have to hire some do-goody liberal or some fascist, it doesn’t matter to me how it happens, I just want it out of my way.’ And from that starting point, and this is, by the way, the starting point of all the media coverage, with some exceptions, I think there was some pushback about the kind of right-wing nature of some of the coverage at the local CBS affiliate and ABC affiliate and I know there’s been some that’s not so bad, but for the most part, the person always being centered is again, the Austin American Statesman article that covered the Prop B, not a single homeless person interviewed, you know, media criticism 101, it’s just, you know, they’re not interviewing the people actually being subject to, the person afflicted is not the person who is unhoused.
Nima: Yeah exactly. ‘Mr. Jones, who works downtown is really upset by that.’ It’s like, what?
Adam: Yeah, it’s the downtown Chamber of Commerce, the quote-unquote “citizens” and the illustrious and always unimpeachable “home owner,” quote unquote, right? Or “small business owner,” the holiest of holy, right below the troops.
Chris Harris: (Chuckles.) Right.
Adam: And that seems to be one of the problems here, is we frame this issue as being fundamentally, I think it’s fair to say as a generalization, that local media, The Statesman, they frame the moral constituent in question as anyone but the homeless person themselves. So this is all a very long-winded way of asking, from your perspective, what are some of the kind of primary objections to Prop B that you come across from, you know, so called swing voters or people who are on the fence or people who may be, again, are kind of liberal-centrists, what are some of the objections that you get that are common and what are your responses to those?
Seneca Savoie: Yeah, so I think the most common is just the sense that we have to do something in general.
Adam: Do something.
Seneca Savoie: Yeah. There’s a really good clip from the night that we got this stuff rolled back where someone was testifying, and they said, ‘We need somewhere for these people to go, some sort of clinic/compassion center/jail.’ Those were words that she said out loud.
Nima: Right. Note that one of the options wasn’t homes.
Seneca Savoie: Yeah.
Chris Harris: Right, right.
Nima: I guess to that point, you know, and the successes that you’ve had as organizers yourselves, you’ve seen this happen over the years, can you give us an indication of the gains that have been made semi-recently in homelessness decriminalization, maybe some even other quote-unquote “reforms,” I say that actually in a positive way, not like shitty, nominal reforms, but actual movement toward justice, and really what Prop B and maybe anything else on the horizon, anything else that you’re really paying attention to, and potentially organizing against, is poised to roll back this kind of decarceration, defunding model that actually may have been gaining steam? Can you sort of tell us what has gotten better and now, what is at risk?
Chris Harris: To Seneca’s point before, you know, ‘We gotta do something,’ it’s based very much on the conditions that were created by the decrim, right? So when we decriminalized homelessness in Austin, it’s made homelessness much more visible, and so of course, it’s gotten the ire of folks who are, again, just want to make it to Starbucks, as you mentioned, you know, without having to really confront the incredible inequality that they already live with, but just has been forced into the shadows by the police before, forced into the jails by the police before, and so it’s created this situation where now people feel homelessness is a crisis, even though the number of people actually experiencing homelessness, if it’s increased at all, it’s in line with national trends given the pandemic and everything that’s going on with the economic crisis surrounding that, and so what it’s done is it’s really put people in, it’s really highlighted the issue and put people in different camps about how best to go about approaching it, and so, you know, I think, and I’m sorry if this isn’t exactly get to your question, but I think the biggest problem I have with the media coverage of it is that even in cases where they do talk to people, even in cases where they do actually try to humanize folks, the story is based entirely off of that individual’s choices, such that it makes it seem as though this is something that maybe it could happen to anyone, but only if the right combination of bad luck and their personal bad choices come into play and it completely ignores the incredibly systemic defunding of our national public housing that’s happened over the last 40 years, really starting with Reagan. The fact that we’ve gone from hundreds of thousands of surplus, low-cost housing units to an extreme deficit the likes of which this country’s never seen is just not even part of the conversation. There’s no even question about what could be done at a systemic level to address the situation.
Adam: Yeah, to your point about this micro-moralizing, I was watching a national CBS story, one of these schmaltzy bullshit, you know, Kent Brockman, good people, it was a story about a homeless person whose high school friend saw his picture in the newspaper and connected with him and got him a home or whatever and they paid his bills, it was a bunch of like old high school friends of his, this person had, and there was a line where they said, ‘And he wasn’t even addicted to drugs or alcohol.’ So the obvious implication being is that he is and then they followed it up with something to the effect of like, ‘He just had bad luck, he just had bad bad bad luck, and it wasn’t a moral failing on his part.’ And that seems like something you come up across a lot and something we talked about in our homelessness episode, which is that everything needs this kind of moral narrative and if you can get people to the basic premise that first off, you don’t know what the fuck people go through, right? Anyone who claims to know the details of people’s lives is lying to you because you don’t know. So you see this with the, you know, Bradenton, Florida story we told about the guy who was harassing a homeless person and he was promoted as some sort of working class hero like, ‘You can get a job,’ you don’t know what the fucking guy’s deal is. You don’t know his medical conditions unless you violate HIPAA, or whatever. So even on its own premise, this moralism fails, but it seems like from the media’s perspective, you come up against this stuff about the deserved and undeserved and that moral binary makes, I assume, your work more difficult because the temptation is to find the deserved, right? This is true in a lot of leftist activist spaces just to kind of prop up the perfect victim and I know that increasingly activists are trying to mess that up.
Seneca Savoie: Yeah, it’s a personal dilemma for me because, you know, one of the things they teach you when you’re messaging to folks to try and do persuasive organizing, is that you lead with your story of self and my story itself around homelessness is one of the considered worthy victim, right? Because I was made homeless my senior year of high school, I was a straight edged kid at the time, so you know, no complicated pieces there, I became homeless because of domestic violence in the home, you know, I look the way I look and talk the way I talk and despite all those things, very, very good grades, tons of extracurricular activities, et cetera, I was homeless for about 18 months, I was assaulted multiple times, by people who are housed, I was sexually assaulted by somebody who’s housed and it’s tempting to lead every conversation telling that story, but it’s also like, it’s very much centering that I’m an articulate white guy and so there’s always that danger that I’m deepening or ‘But you’re not really like them,’ no, I’m exactly. The reasons all those things happened to me are exactly the reasons why they’re happening to everybody else.
Nima: Well, right, because the idea that individuals can have moral failings, can be undeserving, can make these decisions that really affect their own lives, or even those around them, and then it’s kind of, you know, becomes this this personal responsibility story, but the system in which everyone is living is never interrogated on those same terms, right? It’s not that well, the system is set up in a certain way that allows for this to happen, it always has to be centered just on the individual, as we’ve said, but as you all look to May, for, you know, the Prop B vote, what else is kind of on the horizon, what else are you looking at and how can people either get involved or what do they need to know as you’re continuing to do your work down there?
Seneca Savoie: So I guess the first thing is we have to win, right? It’s going to be significantly harder for us to make progress on other criminal justice and abolitionist projects in Austin if this passes. That’ll be weighing over the head of every city council member anytime we try to touch the police budget, alternative first response, et cetera. But we can’t stop there. So in the short term, people can, you know, help with fundraising, with doing remote volunteering, we do a ton of phone banking this sort of thing, it is important in a low turnout election, but after that, if we win and win convincingly, we have to start organizing for the budget May 2 and that’s going to be an entire project, which, fortunately, we do have that stuff in the works, right? We have people making those conversations in a persuasive way, tracking who our supporters are, but if we want to keep on funding new hotels, new permanent supportive housing, we can’t hire a new cadet class immediately, right? They’ll just pour all the money that we took out of the police budget back into it and particularly the incredibly large chunk of money coming from the Biden administration in Austin, I think we’ve seen already in other cities that that COVID relief money gets shunted in the police very easily and that would be enough to make a significant difference in Austin, if we were to put it in actual services.
Chris Harris: Yeah, I mean, I think that’s exactly right, May 1st is the big thing. People can go to NoOnPropB2021.org, to find out how to get involved with that and our phone banks, text banks, canvassing, all the other things going on with it, obviously, to donate as well to that effort and it’s just crucial, you know, obviously, if that passes, we’ll be in a situation where the people that we see today will be subjected to having all of their possessions taken, stolen, thrown away, being run off from where they’ve, you know, been laying their head, many since 2019, and they will be subjected to tickets and arrest for simply just trying to survive, because literally sleeping with any possessions with you will be against the law, sitting or lying down in a big part of town will be against the law, asking for help in a big part of town will be against the law and we know that it will only apply to people who appear outwardly to be unhoused to the police and so it will be an enormous setback and create incredible hardship and bring harm to a lot of people in our community.
Seneca Savoie: I think, you know, this year also exposed above and beyond the dignity and efficiency and danger, the driving people out in the shadows has, just how devastating it could be. So about 254 people experiencing homelessness died in Austin last year. From the CDC information that we’ve seen about the danger of breaking up camps if these ordinances have been enforced aggressively over the last year, I think we would have expected to see another 200 or so people die, because it’d been harder to test people, harder to treat people, harder to quarantine people because you could go to the camps, find folks, test them and bring services to them, right? Second, Austin mutual aid got, and Chris can correct me here, roughly 450 to 500 people off the street in a few days in the middle of the freeze, and that was only possible because people were not in the shadows, if people had been sleeping in creek beds and in the forest, in people’s backyards and trails and things like this, it would have been impossible to take vans, load them up with people and take them to hotels. Hundreds of people would have died the week that Austin froze over and that’s going to happen more.
Chris Harris: It was a remarkable effort. I mean, in addition to getting folks into hotels, I mean, organize food delivery, water delivery, supply delivery, we even had, you know, our own alternative emergency first response system to help support people there, and I mean, it’s just incredible what was able to be done with, you know, honestly, like the mutual aid groups really leading the way and a lot of volunteers, you know, helping out. So, you know, the other thing I will say is that there is a bill up in our legislature right now as well, which runs through May, that HB 1925, that would enact a statewide camping ban and it’s very much in response to our decriminalization efforts in Austin, it would require police literally across the state now to enforce camping bans, in many, many communities that don’t have them now. There’s a lot of small, mid-sized towns that don’t have camping bans, they’ve never seen a need for them, even though they might even have, you know, some people that are visible, that are unhoused, and it would require them to enforce it through the threat of losing state grant funds. So it would be an incredible just unfunded mandate, in addition to being incredibly just cruel and heartless, to rub it in the eye of Austin, as they like to do at the Capitol.
Nima: I think that’s so important to bring up, thanks for bringing all that to our listeners, you know, the idea also, during the freeze that visibility wound up saving hundreds of lives is, I think, a really critical thing to remember.
Seneca Savoie: I think, one thing kind of interesting is the novel way in which the identity part of this has been framed, right? There wasn’t really much of a partisan focus to homelessness until very, very recently, particularly during the Trump era, and you see, basically at the same time as heightened anti-immigrant sentiment rises, that the anti-homeless sentiment becomes more and more personal. So you see people talking more about treating people experiencing homelessness as being transgressors in community, and particularly playing up this myth that every homeless person you see is somebody from another city who has come here because it’s too easy to be homeless here.
Adam: Yeah, it’s the anchor baby equivalent, right?
Tucker Carlson complains about "anchor babies," saying that even the children of spies can be citizens if they're born here pic.twitter.com/rHJCQMmX2h
— Jason Campbell (@JasonSCampbell) January 7, 2020
Seneca Savoie: It’s specifically tied to this white identity notion.
Nima: The notion that what we’re seeing in terms of immigration, you know, “crisis at the border” rhetoric really has this foregrounding of invasion, there’s always an invasion, whether it’s across a border or just into a county, into a city, because the laws are a certain way or the weather is a certain way and I think that this idea of racializing homelessness, in order to enact even more cruel policies is really playing out, I think, in Austin as elsewhere, but really just, you know, kind of seeing it in terms of how Prop B is being rolled out.
Chris Harris: So there is this racialized component to it and yeah, I think to Seneca’s point it’s very much based in white supremacy, right? And how it ties in with immigration is it feeds into this notion that the country is full, and that there’s no more space for anyone, and ‘There’s no space definitely in my neighborhood, I definitely don’t want to support any more housing over here, especially if it’s going to bring others, you know, people who don’t look like me who don’t sound like me, into my community.’ That’s just dangerous and it’s wrong.
Seneca Savoie: It’s so hilarious too because the populations we’re talking about, particularly these permanent supportive housing people, when they’re building it, you know, the local business owners, which there’s this intersection too with the business owners in particular happen to be of like South Asian descent, for the most part, with this, you know, they’re dangerous, they’re going to attack the high schoolers nearby and you look at the people who are actually going into these facilities, and the median age is like, 55, the average person has two or more health problems, so you’re basically talking about moving 150 disabled AARP members nearby a high school and that’s going to, you know, unleash a crime wave when everyone with a basic knowledge of statistics knows that the odds of the people who are graduating from the high school assaulting the homeless people is much greater than the other way around, right? Violent behavior peaks around 19.
Adam: Yeah, this is fueled by the media’s habit of noting the housing status of people only when they’re homeless if they commit a quote-unquote “crime,” right? So they never say housed person murders wife, housed person caught stealing or whatever, it’s a homeless person stabbed someone downtown. I mean, and I wrote a piece for this for The Appeal about a year and a half ago because I noticed that and, I asked some of the editors, ‘Why do you not note when a person is housed when they commit a crime?’ So, if I see 100 articles and three of them say the housing status and it’s only when they’re homeless, it’s going to create an impression that there’s a scourge of homeless related crime and that is just one of those subtle ways, you know, that we just check our fucking brains at the door.
Seneca Savoie: Yeah. When I was homeless, I was like 125 pounds soaking wet. It would have been very difficult for me to commit a lot of violence. I was sleeping, you know, three or four hours a night, I never had anything to eat. Pretty easy for people to beat me up was my experience about it.
Nima: We’ve been speaking with Seneca Savoie, community organizer from Austin, Texas, formerly unhoused and currently a member of Austin DSA. Seneca has been active on many local campaigns for justice, including the original Homes Not Handcuffs initiative, and is currently a Commissioner for the Downtown Austin Community Court. Chris Harris, we’ve also been speaking to, native Texan and an advocate working to transform the criminal legal system. He currently serves as the Director of Criminal Justice Programs for Texas Appleseed, a public interest nonprofit that promotes social and economic justice for all Texans. Though, I should note, Chris appears in a personal capacity in this interview, Seneca and Chris, thank you so much, again, for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Seneca Savoie: Yeah.
Chris Harris: Thank you so much, really, really appreciate the time.
Adam: Yeah, I think the issue about these kind of moral tears is something we talk a lot about, I know it’s a big problem, we talk about homelessness, which is why all these media reports that, even the ones that do try to highlight homeless people, they center their moral worth as deserving of our empathy is something that I know that is difficult to balance when you’re actually an activist on the ground, trying to convince people. So as far as I can see, there’s only polling so we don’t actually know which way it’s going to go, but with these local things, it’s always kind of a bit of a mystery box. I assume there’s internal polling, but as far as we know, there isn’t any public, that may change by the time you’re listening to this, but definitely keep an eye out for, check out the organizations, we will tweet them out.
Nima: So many of these issues intersect, right? So, there’s real estate, there’s gentrification, there’s the idea of making downtown areas really, super attractive to moving in new investment capital as being supremely prioritized and that is always weaponized against people who don’t have housing, people who are experiencing poverty and the root causes of these, I mean, it’s gonna sound hokey, but it’s true, the root causes of these are never the priority to be taken care of. It’s just to get people out of the way so that the problems can not be seen and I think that that’s why the sitting and lying down ordinances, the camping ordinances, there’s this visibility, as we were discussing with Seneca and Chris, there’s this visibility factor, which actually means that the issue is out in the open and can be addressed in a different way, once you hide it, when you make sure that these things are out of sight, and therefore, to Chris’s point, out of mind, that serves this kind of investment class, right? It serves the small business owner class, it serves the political class, because they don’t actually have to make any major changes because people are dying in woods, they’re dying in flood zones, they’re dying under bridges, they’re not living or trying to survive in a park, downtown, in full view, and so I think, you know, that’s why these things are so important and the major advances that cities like Austin have made recently are now trying to be rolled back by these kind of phony coalitions like the Save Austin Now group, which is just like a Republican Party campaign and then to kind of weave that together with, as our guests were saying, this deep xenophobia, this deep anti-immigrant rhetoric, and using this invasion narrative, as a way to further sweep the undesirables out of eyesight and so I think kind of all of these things are coming together, and you can really just see it play out in terms of Austin’s Prop B.
Adam: Yes, but as long as they’re keeping it weird, that’s what’s important.
Nima: (Laughs.) Yeah.
Adam: That’s the important thing.
Nima: Isn’t that what’s really important?
Adam: As you can drive around and see Matthew McConaughey running with his shirt off, that’s all that matters.
Nima: Yes, of course, priorities, priorities.
Adam: Well, and it’s like a lot of these cities, you know, it’s Portland, San Francisco, even, you know, cities that have attractive, you know, it takes some tech worker who’s got generally liberal politics and a homeless guy harasses him one day on the street and out comes his inner Charles Bronson. I mean, it’s —
Nima: Right. ‘Well, now we have a real homeless problem.’ Well, the problem is only because you’re aware of it a little more than you were.
Nima: It’s always been there.
Adam: Being aware of a problem —
Nima: Is not the advent of the problem.
Nima: Well, that will do it for this Citations Needed News Brief. Thank you everyone for listening, for continuing to support the show. We will be back from our spring break very soon. We will see you in April with new episodes, new guests, new topics, new Citations Needed and we cannot thank you enough, of course, for supporting the show throughout this, for sharing it and for rating it and ranking it on Apple Podcast if that is your want. In the meantime you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks everyone. We’ll catch you next time.
This Citations Needed News Brief was released on Wednesday, March 24, 2021.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.