In March 2018, in response to the lack of action taken by Austin city officials, the Grassroots Leadership Action Research Collective (ARC) and Gathering Ground Theater launched a participatory action research project to gather information about three city ordinances that criminalize sitting and lying, camping, and soliciting for Austinites experiencing homelessness. The project sought to elevate the stories and perspectives of the people being criminalized by the ordinances, the people often discriminated against and dehumanized by the police.
What we found suggests that often people end up in homelessness as a result of job loss and unemployment, release from jail or prison, mental health or addiction needs, and domestic violence, among other challenges. Due to police enforcement of the ordinances that criminalize homelessness, the majority of individuals we surveyed got only 3 to 5 hours of sleep per night and were woken up at least once a night. For many, this resulted in increased physical and emotional health issues and decreased energy levels and productivity, all of which create barriers to finding and sustaining employment and securing housing.
The individuals we surveyed were issued an average of 5.7 tickets under the ordinances that criminalize homelessness over the course of the year preceding the date of the survey. The results demonstrate high levels of police harassment and avoidance of police among folks experiencing homelessness. Folks reported walking for hours and going without rest to avoid ticketing and arrest for sitting or lying. Furthermore, the vast majority of individuals who interacted with police due to these ordinances were not connected to social services or housing assistance as a result of ticketing and arrest.
The Austin City Council has yet to take action beyond calling for a stakeholder process to further study what we already know. Our survey findings make clear that criminalization is harmful and ineffective at connecting folks experiencing homelessness to housing supports. We cannot ticket and arrest our way out of homelessness. We must do better. We ask the Austin City Council to move beyond a stakeholder process that only serves to delay justice. We ask for a complete repeal of each of the three ordinances that criminalize sitting, lying, camping, and soliciting help. We ask for homes, not handcuffs.