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February 26, 2021

White privilege in Austin’s unhoused community

by Alberta Phillips, Chair of the ECHO Board of Directors

A blistering winter storm that swept through the state this month left millions of Texans in the dark and cold. More than a week later, all eyes are focused on recovery. But that monster storm – just like the COVID-19 pandemic — further exposed inequities confronting Austin regarding its population of unsheltered people.

As temperatures plunged to sub-freezing levels, hundreds were gathered up from Austin streets and moved to “central warming centers,” which were too crowded to observe the degree of social distancing to which we’ve become accustomed. For people in those centers, it was about surviving an immediate danger: the icy cold that blanketed streets, parks and other places where the unsheltered pitch their tent homes.

And now with the weather warming, they again are back on the streets facing other big threats, such as the coronavirus plague. For unsheltered African American residents, however, the threat is greater and far more damaging because of systemic racism.

It’s the kind of racism that can and does lock Black people into a lifetime of living unsheltered in Austin.

As an African American woman who chairs the ECHO Board (the first in its 10-year history) the irony of these things converging during Black History Month, in which we note and celebrate Black accomplishment, does not escape me. The facts speak plainly and clearly.

Consider that African Americans make up a plurality – the largest proportion – of those who are experiencing homelessness in Austin. By the numbers, Blacks are 36 percent of that total. How is that possible in a city in which Black residents comprise roughly 8 percent of Austin’s total population?

Mathematically, that is more than 4 times their numbers in the overall population. By contrast, non-Hispanic whites make up 33 percent; and Latinos, 25 percent of the total population experiencing homelessness. Asians, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and those who are multi-racial make up the remainder.

Those figures serve as a reality check that cannot be explained without looking squarely at the root causes that for too long have kept African Americans at the bottom of the pile of people in Austin who are prioritized for housing. Our system is making improvements, detailed below, but for years, unsheltered Black people were last in getting an opportunity to break the cycle of homelessness and reclaim their dignity.

There is enough blame to go around, from City Hall that veers from one policy, such as eliminating Austin’s camping ban, to restoring it in some form, to the nonprofit organizations that serve people experiencing homelessness in Austin. To be sure, they are well-intended, but they are predominantly white (as is ECHO). They and ECHO have acknowledged their implicit (and sometimes explicit) biases, the kind that crop up in the re-entry/intake process for housing that has mostly white people interviewing People of Color in a dynamic that long has proved inherently biased.

Then there is the criminal justice system with its enduring legacy of slavery in which Black people were charged, arrested and cited for vagrancy, especially in white areas, such as downtown. Remember, the City of Austin’s 1928 Master Plan removed most Blacks from all parts of the city, establishing a “Negro District,” East of Interstate 35. The message was, “That is your place.” It was another way of controlling the movement of Black people, as they weren’t welcome downtown or in neighborhoods bordering downtown, even those in which they once lived and owned homes.

Such vagrancy laws and other policies governing the movement of Austin’s Black people are akin to the modern-day laws City Halls established, essentially outlawing unsheltered people for loitering, sleeping or panhandling downtown. Make no mistake, those laws disproportionately impacted Black homeless people. Our jails are living proof. Consider that African Americans are imprisoned in the Travis County Jail system at rates about three times as high as their percentage of the County population, according to data from Grassroots Leadership.

In essentially criminalizing homelessness  – as the camping ban did in targeting people sleeping in public places – Austin made it tougher for all unsheltered people to acquire housing and jobs because landlords and employers had policies against renting to or hiring folks with criminal backgrounds.

And yes, such practices affected Black homeless people more than others because of systemic racism that made them more prone to be cited, arrested and jailed. Combine all these factors and it’s easy to see how Black people languish for years in the system.

It seems white privilege rules even in the world of people experiencing homelessness.

I recognize the value in having a downtown that is welcoming and inviting for tourists and the rights of businessowners to be able to conduct their business without having to contend with people who are sleeping in their doorways or on sidewalks in front of their buildings. I appreciate the sentiments of homeowners, especially in working- and middle-income neighborhoods, who are weary and frustrated over the camps that now occupy city streets, parks and other places, such as underneath bridges and overpasses.

Know that ECHO and its many partners are working on solutions that are fair to businesses and homeowners as well as unsheltered people. And they are reconfiguring some systems to tackle systemic racism. Let me share just a few initiatives on that front:

  • The establishment of the Equity Task Group. The group includes a diverse coalition of representatives from Austin-area nonprofits and people with lived expertise who serve people who are unsheltered. The group is analyzing why the process has led to white Austin residents who live on the street scoring higher on average than Black people in similar circumstances regarding vulnerability factors. Vulnerability factors are key in determining who gets priority in Austin’s scarce housing market for poor and unsheltered people. In other words, the more vulnerable a person is, or the higher the score on that metric, the more likely he or she is to get housing.

    Though the team is not finished with its work, there have been signs of improvement. As a result of the analysis, the team added new questions to the vulnerability assessment to account for inherent biases. Anecdotally, ECHO is seeing more Black people prioritized for housing than in the past.

  • A citywide/countywide summit. In the coming weeks, a mix of nonprofits and people, including Mayor Steve Adler, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Austin Alliance, ECHO, people with lived expertise, and community organizations that represent diverse interests, will host a summit to address Austin’s unsheltered population. That will include devising short-term and long-term strategies to house people more rapidly.

    With the goal of moving people off streets and other public spaces timely and more efficiently, all housing systems will be on the table for review, including crisis beds, permanent supportive housing, rapid re-housing, street management and encampments. Also, the group will look at diversion and prevention initiatives and ways to expand funding for various initiatives with an eye toward updating Austin’s Action Plan to End Homelessness.

  • Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Demo. Austin has been selected as one of eight communities across the country taking part in HUD’s first-ever Equity Demonstration Project, meaning that the work our community is doing likely will inform the work of other communities that are grappling with this problem. Among promising initiatives is data-driven analysis to test all aspects of the response system for inequities and problems. Read ECHO’s conversation with a core member of the team to learn more.

I will leave you with one last fact: Because, as I stated above, African Americans make up the largest segment of Austin’s unhoused population, the city never will eliminate homelessness or significantly reduce the number of people living on our streets unless it vigorously attacks Black homelessness.

Though that is not the typical celebratory issue we focus on during Black History Month, it certainly is one of the most relevant, given the facts.

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