Not New, Just More Visible

By Irit Umani

Homelessness in Austin became a big public discussion issue recently, widely covered by media in town hall meetings and in city council meetings. What happened? What changes created this citywide “emergency?”

Well, the city ordinances that restricted people who are homeless from sitting, lying down and camping were somewhat relaxed, resulting in much increased visibility of our brothers and sisters.  And a plan to open an additional shelter in South Austin got that specific neighborhood up in arms. “Not in my backyard!” they organized to shout. “Not in front of my downtown business!” others screamed. Truth is that no new homeless people just showed up recently. They have all been here for a long time, just a bit more in hiding in the past and more visible now.

Personally, I think that this is good — lest we forget that we mostly ignore what is real and that we fall criminally short of meeting the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable amongst us. At least we are now in discussion about solutions.

I never believed in, “You can pull yourself by your own boot-straps,” simply because it is a lie. And I don’t know one person who actually pulled themselves up alone. All of us who are successful and less vulnerable had a village that raised us. All of us.

The Mayor speaks about 2,000 people who are homeless in Austin, give-or-take, while all service providers know that the real number is two to three times as many. Service providers have been advocating for more rapid rehousing and permanent supportive housing, more shelters and more case managers for years.

What I’d like to see is not town hall and city council meetings about the basic human right to sit, rest, sleep — somewhere, anywhere  — but rather a real, accountable plan, with a time-line and a realistic budget, to house and offer services to citizens of this beautiful (and beautifully rich) city, people who are now living more visibly on the streets. The hysteria should not be about the visibility of those we would rather ignore, but about the actual fact that this is the reality in which we all live, for which we are all responsible and, which we have the power to solve, but for our will.