Above: A campsite under Texas Highway 71 in South Austin, photographed in October 2019.
I’m stopped at a red light next to I-35 in central Austin, waiting to cross under the highway on my drive home from work, when I see a young woman sitting on the median, holding a cardboard sign. A familiar dread floods my body, and I can almost hear my pulse racing in my ears. Could it be my sister? Then I notice that the woman’s long wavy hair is brown, not red. A pit bull sleeps curled at her feet. Sara (not my sister’s real name) loves animals, but she’s more of a cat person. I exhale and loosen my grip on the steering wheel, relieved. Then I think: This woman is somebody’s sister, somebody’s friend, somebody’s daughter. The light turns green, and I drive on.
Moments like these are a near-daily occurrence for me, but they don’t get any easier. Some days I still have trouble believing that my sister, who has struggled with schizophrenia for more than a decade, is homeless. Our family tried everything to get her help over the years, from dragging her to therapy to hiring a professional mental health interventionist to an involuntary commitment, and none of it worked. The illness makes her fearful and paranoid, convinced we’re trying to hurt rather than help her. But one thing she would never do is hurt anyone else.
I wish I could tell Governor Greg Abbott about my sister. Last week, in the latest missive in his cruel campaign against our city’s homeless, he tweeted a link to a news story about a stabbing in South Austin. The suspect hadn’t yet been identified, but still the governor speculated, “When all facts are revealed I bet you’ll learn that the killer was a homeless man with prior arrests.” It later turned out that the man was in fact homeless, but it shouldn’t have mattered. As Austin Mayor Steve Adler said, “It’s misleading and it’s harmful to equate people experiencing homelessness with being criminals … There’s a real damage to society when we demonize people in ways that are simply not true.”
Apparently, Abbott isn’t satisfied with kicking homeless people out from under highway overpasses and moving them out of sight to a vacant lot away from downtown. He got what he wanted—Austin’s homeless residents are a little less visible—but he’s still spreading hate and dangerous ideas on social media. The latest tweet shouldn’t have surprised me, of course. In October, Abbott shared a year-old video of a man throwing a street sign at a car, and he wrote, “Austin’s policy of lawlessness has allowed vicious acts like this.” No matter that the man wasn’t homeless. The governor pulled a similar trick back in July, when he shared a tweet supposedly of a car accident caused by homeless people running into traffic. No matter that police confirmed no one homeless was involved. It bears repeating: Of all the ways our state’s leader could spend his time, he’s chosen over and over again to maliciously attack his most vulnerable constituents.
Here’s what I would tell the governor, if he’d listen: Homeless people are far more likely to be the victims of crime than the instigators of it. From 1999 to 2010, housed people committed 1,184 acts of violence against homeless people nationwide, resulting in 312 deaths and 872 injuries. (That statistic doesn’t include the married couple who’d just been evicted when they were killed by a hit-and-run driver in September under a Houston highway overpass.) About 25 percent of people experiencing homelessness live with a serious mental illness—is that group more likely to be violent? Nope. Only 3 to 5 percent of violent crimes are committed by people living with serious mental illness. Those struggling with serious mental illness are 11 times more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the general population. More than a quarter of people with serious mental illness have been the victim of a violent crime in the past year.
Since June, when Austin City Council decriminalized homelessness, some homeless residents say they’ve felt a little safer. “I don’t get assaulted as much when I sleep anymore,” Catherine Fako, 33, told Texas Monthly. The resignation in her words guts me: as much.
If Abbott wanted to help the homeless, he could do a myriad of things. He could direct funds to nonprofits like Front Steps, ECHO, and Community First, whose experts know best which needs are most pressing. He could support affordable housing and “housing first” initiatives, which focus first on providing safe, permanent housing and have succeeded—and saved money—in other cities. He could work to change Texas’ ultra-strict laws that make it nearly impossible to compel people struggling with mental illness to get help. As things stand, unless a person is actively threatening to hurt themselves or others, no one can require them to get treatment (and even then, care providers are woefully overcrowded and underfunded, since Texas ranks 48th in the nation on mental health spending). He will do none of these things, because his campaign has never been about helping homeless people, but instead vilifying them, hiding them from view, and riling up his base.
There’s a thin line between spreading hate, as the governor continues to do, and inciting violence. For my family, the worry never ends. Where’s Sara sleeping tonight? Is she safe? She bounces from one temporary situation to the next: a short-term rental, a sketchy sublet, the Salvation Army. She’s a sister, a daughter, a friend, a person carrying a heavy burden, someone who deserves respect. And so is every homeless Texan.
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