Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The arrest of a homeless man in the murder of a university student has the city split on how to ethically handle its homelessness crisis.
Tanner Golden launched his petition to relocate the homeless population of Austin last November. But it only gained traction this week, after details emerged about the death of Haruka Weiser, a student at the University of Texas at Austin who was murdered on campus. The lead suspect in the case, a 17-year-old man named Meechaeiel Criner, is homeless. Last Friday, he was arrested at a nonprofit shelter and later charged with Weiser’s murder.
In the short time since Criner’s arrest, Golden’s anti-homeless petition has become a forum for concerned students, residents, and parents wrestling with Weiser’s death. According to Change.org, most all of the nearly 2,500 signatures came on or after April 9, the day after Criner’s arrest.
Since then, hundreds of people have posted comments echoing the sentiment of the petition, which asks the city to remove people experiencing homelessness from Guadalupe Street, the main drag near campus. The number of signatures now rivals the homeless population of Austin.
In the wake of Weiser’s murder, these inchoate appeals to the city to do something are understandable. Many of the comments are simple cries of urgency: My daughter lives on campus. My grandson goes to UT. It is all too easy for a fretful parent or a frightened student to imagine the worst. The Texas Tribune reports on even more examples of reactions from the community.
But while the instinct to demand action is defensible, the solution here is not. Calling for the city to remove homeless people betrays a misunderstanding of what homelessness means and who the homeless are. Removing homeless people is simplistic, immoral, and unconstitutional—and anyway, it wouldn’t solve any of Austin’s problems. Here are some facts about homelessness in Austin and beyond:
- The number-one cause of homelessness is the lack of affordable housing. That’s true in Austin and across the nation. In Austin specifically, as the city’s population grows and rents skyrocket, affordable housing for low-income, very low-income, and extremely low-income households is growing rarer and rarer.
- Households facing homelessness in Austin are competing with low-income households and even moderate-income households for affordable housing. That’s one conclusion of a March 2016 report by the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, drawing on data from the City of Austin, Travis County, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. For residents with criminal histories, poor credit, and/or spotty employment, finding rental housing in a competitive market may be impossible.
- Austin’s homeless require rapid re-housing. About 37 percent of the homeless population in Austin is chronically homeless. Many more people within the population require rapid re-housing—the kind of housing support aimed at returning households to stable housing.
- Substance abuse and mental health problems are endemic among Austin’s homeless, and so is domestic violence. About 45 percent of Austin’s homeless population report having a current mental health problem. That’s high. About 15 percent report chronic substance abuse. Nearly one-third have experienced domestic abuse. While many people experiencing homelessness suffer, when they require medical care, their best recourse is the emergency room (41 percent), a clinic (31 percent), or no care at all (17 percent).
- ”Being homeless is not a crime.” Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo Art Acevedo reminded reporters at a press conference that law enforcement cannot target people who are homeless simply because they are homeless. Police can and do harass homeless people across the nation, but they cannot forbid them from congregating downtown or near campus, close to services, job opportunities, and yes, panhandling corridors like the Drag.
- Living on campus is incredibly safe. Despite Weiser’s tragic murder, violent crimes on campus are rare. According to University of Texas campus police statistics, in 2015, there were no homicides on campus and only three reported sexual assaults. (Of course, sexual assaults on campus frequently go unreported.) Austin’s crime rate places 21st out of 24 Texas cities, Texas Monthly reports, and its murder rate falls behind that of Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio.
The answer to homelessness isn’t to hide the homeless. That may be a gut reaction, but it’s the wrong one. Providing more and more-affordable housing is critical for Austin’s future, and one sign of the city’s failure to do so is its rising homeless population. The way to make frightened parents and residents feel safe is to provide enough housing that people aren’t forced to go without it. It’s wrong, or at least, ineffective, to think the problem can be moved out of sight and out of mind.
It would be a shame if Criner, an alleged murderer, were to become the public face of homelessness in Austin. It wasn’t so long ago that that person was Leslie Cochran, the unofficial mayor of Austin and embodiment of Austin weird and Austin tolerance. Residents have every right to be angry about a gruesome act of violence on campus. But misplaced anger won’t make campus safer, and it won’t help the city’s homeless, either.