A Compiled History of Homelessness in the United States and Austin, Texas
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Special thanks to the team at Adisa Communications for compiling this history.
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Following the Peasants’ Revolt in England, constables were authorized under 1383 English Poor Laws statute to collar vagabonds and force them to show support; if they could not, the penalty was prison. Vagabonds could be sentenced to the stocks for three days and nights; in 1530, whipping was added. The presumption was that vagabonds were unlicensed beggars.
A bill was passed that subjected vagrants to some of the more extreme provisions of the criminal law, namely two years’ servitude and branding with a “V” as the penalty for the first offense and death for the second. Large numbers of vagabonds were among the convicts transported to the American colonies in the 18th century.
Twenty Africans are stolen from their homes in West Africa and brought to the English settlement at Jamestown, marking the beginning of a trans-Atlantic slave trade that would bring millions more from their homes and families to the land that was being colonized by the British in North America over the next two centuries.
Earliest cases of homelessness are documented in the American colonies. In the 1640s homelessness was seen as a moral deficiency, a character flaw. It was generally believed a good Christian, under God’s grace, would naturally have their needs met. People outside of that grace somehow were deserving of their plight as God rendered justice accordingly and fairly. If one found themselves homeless in the 1600s, a person or family would come upon a town and would have to prove their ‘worth’ to the community’s fathers. If not, they would be on the not so merry way to the next town or hamlet.
English colonists and native people become homeless during “King Philip’s War” in New England, which was the last major effort by indigenous people to expel English settlers.
The Industrial Revolution is when people began migrating from the farm to the city in search of jobs. Philadelphia and New York had many people walking the streets causing the country’s first pan-handling ordinances. City jails became de facto shelter systems.
President Andrew Jackson signs the Indian Removal Act, displacing tens of thousands of Creek, Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole and other native people who suffered from deadly disease, starvation, and exhaustion as they migrated west. This is the first major federal legislation to create mass homelessness.
City of Austin’s population included 856 residents, and 145 enslaved Africans.
Austin’s population reached 854, 225 of whom were enslaved Africans and one free Black.
The 1850s brought the first documented cases of homeless youth, many of whom were kicked out of their homes because their providers could no longer afford to raise them. Poor safety regulation caused a lot of physical disability and death. Those disabled and widows, many with dependent children had no means to provide for themselves and nowhere to turn.
Austin census recorded only 973 enslaved Africans in the 1860 census, an unusually high number of freedmen’s communities flourished here after the war. In fact, records show that African Americans at this time lived all over the city. Also, whites and Mexican Americans lived in the freedmen’s communities.
Austin’s population was 3,546, 1,019 enslaved Africans and 12 freedmen.
President Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation September 22, 1862, and his final Emancipation Proclamation January 1, 1863.
After the Emancipation Proclamation, free Blacks experience homelessness on the edges of Union Army Camps and in Northern cities.
The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. The amendment was passed by Congress on January 31, 1865 and ratified by the required 27 of the then 36 states on December 6, 1865 and proclaimed on December 18. It was the first of the three Reconstruction Amendments adopted following the American Civil War.
Post Civil War
After the Civil War, segregation developed as a method of group control. For both minority groups, segregation existed in [Texas] schools, churches, residential districts, and most public places such as restaurants, theaters, and barber shops. By the latter years of the nineteenth century, institutionalized segregation flourished legally in places with a visible Black population and was extended informally to Tejanos. Most Texas towns and cities had a “Negro quarter” and a “Mexican quarter.”
Pleasant Hill was established in 1865, this settlement took the highlands above Waller Creek just beyond East Avenue (now Interstate 35) between Seventh and 11th streets. With a population of 180, it included houses and tents. Mears: “Pleasant Hill could not have been very pleasant when the creek flooded, which it often did.”
Kincheonville was established in 1865, this hamlet was home to 80 freedmen. Far outside Austin at the time, it was in the area now defined by Paisano Trail, Davis Lane, Brodie Lane and Longview Road near southwestern Austin’s Longview Park.
Barton Springs was established. A third community grew up in 1865, southeast of the famous springs, settled by former slaves from the Goodrich Plantation. School was held at Barton Springs Baptist Church, established in 1870.
Black emancipation officially came to Texas on June 19, 1865. On this day, a Union military MajorGeneral stationed in Galveston, Texas read General Order No. 3, which declared that “all slaves are free.” The occasion of this order has come to be known and celebrated by African Americans and others across the nation as Juneteenth. What is seldom appreciated is that along with declaring all 250,000 slaves in Texas free, this order also limited their movement and freedom of assembly and created a template for how to control the Black population post-emancipation. General Order No.3 decreed that Black people should typically be either at work or at home and that they should always be employed. It decried and outlawed idleness, as “idleness is sure to be productive off vice.”
The June 1865 Council meeting was a call to respond to the Black presence in Austin with more police and with expanded police power. Following the call for more police in order to deal with the presence of Black people, a vagrancy law was put into place to single out Blacks. It called for the arrest and punishment of “all able-bodied Negroes who have abandoned the service of their employers, for the purpose of idleness, or who are found loitering or rambling about, or idly wandering about the streets or other public thoroughfares.” Punishment could include arrest, whippings, and a fine between $3 and $100. Ifa person could not pay their appointed fine, an offender could be hired out to the lowest bidder (Mears 2009:26). Exorbitant fines provided abasis for retaking Black’s freedom and putting them to work building up the state’s resources, including providing forced labor to help with the construction of the Texas State Capitol (Blue 2000).
Former enslaved Africans freed during the Civil War lived all over Austin, but settled primarily in the following communities
Clarksville, first settled by Charles Clark, went from West Lynn to the Missouri-Pacific railroad tracks and from 10th Street to Waterston Avenue.
Wheatville [not Wheatsville] was named for James Wheat and was bounded by Rio Grande Street and Shoal Creek on the east and west and by 24th and 26th Streets on the south and north.
Masontown was begun by Sam and Raiford Mason and covered the approximate area between 3rd and 6th Streets and Chicon and Waller Streets.
Kincheonville, named for Thomas Kinchion [sic], was a small farming community in what is now southwest Austin, within an area roughly described by Paisano Trail, Longview Road, Davis Lane, and Brodie Lane.
Reyna Branch was established in 1866, this town, probably near Bluff Springs on Onion Creek, developed around the Reyna Branch School.
Masontown was established in 1867, the flats beyond East Avenue from Third to Sixth streets were settled around what would become the Mason Town School. Eventually, it was split by massive railyards, now slated for redevelopment.
Wheatville was establish in a. Located in 1869 above Shoal Creek between 24th, 26th streets and Rio Grande streets, this community of 250 worshipped at New Hope Baptist Church (1887) and studied at Wheatville School (1881). Its newspaper offices now house Freedmen’s Bar.
Robertson Hill was established. Arguably the center of Black culture at one time, these uplands rise north of Pleasant Hill, between 11th and 14th streets. It has been home to Ebenezer Third Baptist Church (1875) and Robertson Hill School (1897), among other institutions.
From the 1870s until the 1890s one could purchase morphine and heroin with syringes from Sears and Roebucks catalogues. The Civil War was the first war where the newly discovered painkiller morphine was used. Now people with amputated limbs could survive. Opiate addiction became rampant with 100s of thousands of war veterans addicted. Many rural housewives also became addicted in response to the monotony of life in the middle of nowhere. Criminalization of drug addiction soon followed in response to the epidemic. And of course the Civil War brought with it cases of what is now known as PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). The terms “tramp” “hobo” and “bum” were born out of this era.
Belle Hill was established in 1870, a few Black families lived in Austin off Bee Cave Road. The only known reminder is Jackson Cemetery at 700 Las Lomas Drive.
Austin’s population was 1,615 Black residents, which composed 36 percent of the 4,428 inhabitants.
Reconstruction Act of 1867 shepherd in a short era of “Radical Reconstruction,” where interracial democracy begins to take hold as Blacks are voted into elected offices, ambitious economic development programs and more equitable tax structures are established, and laws against racial discrimination take hold. The reassertion of white supremacy in the South and the official end of Reconstruction in 1877 accelerates the ongoing subjugation of Black people. Sharecropping, peonage, and the convict leasing system replace slavery
Clarksville was established. Governor E.M. Pease granted lots from his plantation to former enslaved Africans. Charles Griffin Clark was an outsider who bought up land. Sweet Home Baptist Church (1896) remains the cultural center of this protected neighborhood, bounded by West Lynn Street, Waterston Avenue, West 10th Street and MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1).
Archivist Michelle Mears’ 2009 book, “And Grace Will Lead Me Home: African American Freedmen Communities of Austin, Texas, 1865-1928″ describes African American settlements in Austin: In general, she writes, these communities consisted of small, substandard houses on unpaved streets that lacked transportation, streetlights, electricity, indoor plumbing and garbage pickup. Often situated along creeks, they were anchored by self-help organizations, schools and, especially, churches. A dozen or so of those congregations still exist today.
Early Chinese immigrants to Austin were prohibited from owning property. Discriminatory laws denied Chinese immigrants (who were prohibited from citizenship under federal law) the right to own property in Austin. The spouses of these immigrants were often stripped of their U.S. citizenship and its various benefits. The Chinese Exclusion Act, signed by President Chester Arthur, bans immigration by Chinese laborers and excluded from U.S. citizenship Chinese immigrants who had already settled in the U.S
Jim Crow laws were a collection of state and local statutes that legalized racial segregation. Named after a Black minstrel show character, the laws—which existed for about 100 years, from the post-Civil War era until 1968—were meant to marginalize African Americans by denying them the right to vote, hold jobs, get an education or other opportunities. Those who attempted to defy Jim Crow laws often faced arrest, fines, jail sentences, violence and death.
When first used in the United States in the 1870s, the term “homelessness” was meant to describe itinerant “tramps” traversing the country in search of work. After declining briefly after the Civil War, homelessness first became a national issue in the 1870s. Facilitated by the construction of the national railroad system, urbanization, industrialization, and mobility led to the emergence of tramps “riding the rails” in search of jobs.
Article VII, Section 7, of the Texas Constitution of 1876 provided for separate schools for white and Black students.
Red River Street community was established. Many ethnic groups got their residential and retail starts in Austin on Red River. For African Americans, the story began in 1876 and included at least three schools and two churches.
Red River Street community was established. Many ethnic groups got their residential and retail starts in Austin on Red River. For African Americans, the story began in 1876 and included at least three schools and two churches.
The Great Migration of Black individuals and families from former slave states in the South to large cities in the Northeast, Midwest, and West coast begins. As they arrive, they are pushed into overcrowded, segregated housing.
A U.S. Supreme Court decision ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was unconstitutional in some respects, saying Congress was not afforded control over private persons or corporations. With white southern Democrats forming a solid voting bloc in Congress, due to having outsize power from keeping seats apportioned for the total population in the South (although hundreds of thousands had been disenfranchised), Congress did not pass another civil rights law until 1957.
Knights of Labor Chinese Boycott: Labor union called for boycott of businesses owned by Chinese immigrants December 4, 1885, The Austin Daily Statesman reported.
Gregorytown was established. Once Austin’s most densely populated Black community, with a population of 1,200, it ran from the Texas State Cemetery to the Tillotson Institute, now known as Huston-Tillotson University. It was served by the Gregorytown School established in the 1890s.
An elaborate system of legal codes kept Black Texans apart from the mainstream of Texas life.
A 1917 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court prompted a series of policies that changed things. In its ruling, the court struck down segregationist zoning laws, so Austin and cities across the South started developing new policies to isolate minorities.
Institutionalized housing discrimination—restrictive covenants, redlining, Federal Housing Administration and G.I. bill loans, among other national and local policies—result in entrenched housing segregation across America, and the exclusion of people of color from home ownership and nearly eliminate the potential for multigenerational wealth accumulation.
The Great Chicago Fire, The San Francisco earthquake, the massive flooding of the Mississippi in the 1920s from Ohio through New Orleans displaced over 1.3 million people. The Drought of the 30s in Oklahoma and Texas, Hurricane Katrina, are just a few examples of disasters that affected millions of people’s households.
By the 1920s the Anglo political leadership of Austin sought legal methods to deal with what they characterized as the “Negro Problem.” As it was then articulated, it was a problem for Austin to provide equal protection under the law, schools, city services, parks, utilities and such for African Americans. And, if the City were legally required to do so, it was more of a problem if African Americans were allowed to continue to build communities throughout the City.
The Mississippi River floods, displacing hundreds of thousands of people from Illinois to Louisiana and creating mass homelessness and speeding along the Great Migration. President Herbert Hoover oversees the recovery, which includes segregated camps for Whites and Blacks. Black men, under armed guard, are held captive and forced to rebuild levees in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas.
Austin City government adopted the 1928 Master Plan and created a “negro district” in what is now Austin’s City Council District 1. The plan formally segregated the city by creating a Negro district where all Black people are expected to live. Two aspects of the plan as it relates to Blacks are of specific note. First, the plan strategically sought to increase value to White interests by taking from Black people and Black communities. Second, the language never included harm to Blacks as an outcome, much more as an intended one. The plan instead spoke in disingenuous language of the resources to be provided to Blacks.
The legalized segregation of negroes by the 1928 Master Plan evolved into the effective and real segregation of blacks and Hispanics in East Austin. Both forms of segregation kept Austin’s minority populations “out of sight and out of mind.” The master plan publicly acknowledged that it would save the city money.
The Great Depression creates homelessness and unemployment for people of all races and ethnicities in the U.S. on a scale not seen before or since.
Mexican American residents were pushed to move from “Old Mexico” in order to make room for City and related office buildings. Many of them were placed in the neighborhood bounded by East Ave.,/IH 35 on the west, the river on the south, Airport on the east, and 7th Street on the north.
The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) was established by the National Housing Act within the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Although facilitating home financing, improving housing standards and increasing employment in the home construction industry were touted as main goals, the FHA directly subsidized the urbanization of America on to the condition that no homes be sold or resold to African Americans. In fact, the National Real Estate Board made it illegal to sell a Black family a home in a white neighborhood.
The federal government launched a New Deal program that would reinforce segregationist boundaries in Austin and throughout the country. The program was designed to restore household wealth during the Great Depression, but it excluded most minority communities through redlining — the practice of denying or charging more for goods and services in certain neighborhoods, usually determined by race.
Government-backed mortgages wouldn’t be offered in redlined districts, and virtually all the minority neighborhoods were redlined. In Austin, the largest redlined section encompassed Koch and Fowler’s “negro district.”
Because the Homeowners Loan Corporation would not provide mortgages in those districts, most of the nation’s African-American residents could not access one of the most significant efforts to build household wealth in U.S. history. [DISCRIMINATORY POLICIES – AUSTIN]
City planners worked to “preserve” Austin’s image by drawing African Americans away from the city center and university areas. Blockbusting became pervasive until the Federal Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968 and made discrimination of underrepresented groups illegal (Blockbusting is the manipulation of a homeowner to sell or rent their home at a lower price by convincing them that minorities are moving into their once segregated neighborhood. Living near Black people was so undesirable that some Austinites would go to extraordinary measures to NOT have to live within proximity. This led to clear racial division within and around the city).
Chinese community protests in Texas Senate. State lawmakers proposed a bill to prevent Asian immigrants from owning property. Chinese community members protested the bill, which did not pass.
President Roosevelt signed the United States Housing Act (the “Wagner-Steagall Act”) into law on September 1, 1937 . The purpose of the law was, “To provide financial assistance to [state and local governments] for the elimination of unsafe and unsanitary housing conditions, for the eradication of slums, for the provision of decent, safe, and sanitary dwellings for families of low income, and for the reduction of unemployment and the stimulation of business activity, to create a United States Housing Authority, and for other purposes” .
While the influx of Hispanics into Texas and Austin during the second half of the 20th century led to a much greater dispersal of their population throughout the area, the effects of those segregationist policies are still visible today. The vast majority of Austin’s African-American and Hispanic populations remain east of I-35. But Austin’s divisions run deeper than where its residents live. The policies that spawned a geographic divide set the stage for a sharp economic divide as well. Redlining not only blocked most minority residents from the country’s single-largest accumulation of household wealth, it also denied them the compound interest that future generations could derive from such affluence. Their exclusion from that wealth has calcified through an increasingly complex mix of social dynamics — subtle and unintentional forms of discrimination, disadvantaged schools, higher crime rates and passive public policies that maintain the status quo.
“Mexican American” households were concentrated in a neighborhood in the southwest of downtown. While some “Mexican American” households remained downtown through the 1940s, most “Mexican American” families arriving in Austin moved into the Hispanic/Latino neighborhood east of downtown – just south of the Black neighborhood—between current day East 10th Street and Cesar Chavez Street, and later down to the Colorado River banks.
Urban renewal projects changed the landscape of American cities in the 1950s and ‘60s. The federal government gave cities billions of dollars to tear down blighted areas and replace them with affordable housing. In many places, there was a net loss of housing as city leaders decided instead to build offices or shopping malls, or to expand hospitals and universities. Urban renewal projects displaced more than 300,000 people between 1955 and 1966, and the burden fell disproportionately on people of color. Nixon had frozen federal subsidized housing programs, and the national gentrification program was destroying affordable urban housing around the country, including in the skid row districts.
Began as the Medical Reference Service “when the Ladies of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul at St. Theresa’s Church noticed a gap in medical services available for the less fortunate and decided to do something about it. These well-connected women persuaded private physicians to see patients in their office free of charge…”
Before the widespread adoption of the term “homeless” to refer to people who do not have a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence” (42 U.S.C. § 11301, et seq. 1994), a variety of different terms were used to describe this population of people. These terms included “bums,” “vagrants,” “tramps,” and “transients” or “gypsies.” In this 1966 packet of information gathered and presented by the Community Council of Austin & Travis County, “transients” is the term of choice. This packet was developed because Caritas, the local office of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Austin, asked for admission to the United Fund, and the Council needed to demonstrate that Caritas provided the necessary services to qualify.
The packet lists and describes various agencies and services available for transients and “non-residents,” or those people who had either just moved to Austin or are passing through and need temporary accommodation. Amongst these agencies was the Salvation Army, which, in 1966, provided “dormitory space for 38 men and four beds…for families or single women.” (2) However, the Salvation Army’s policy at the time was that transients could only stay in their lodging for one night every three months, except in special cases where exceptions were made.
In the 1970s, a global recession accelerated deindustrialization in America, shunting many high-wage manufacturing workers into unemployment and poverty. If there was cheap housing to catch them, it was rapidly disappearing. Nixon had frozen federal subsidized housing programs, and a national gentrification program known as “urban renewal” was destroying affordable urban housing around the country, including in the skid row districts. When Reagan took office, he slammed the pedal to the floor by kicking hundreds of thousands off federal disability benefits and gutting public housing and Section 8 voucher budgets.
The 1980s was the decade of awareness, even as the homeless population was still referred to as “transients.” Homelessness in Austin is not a new issue. Homeless people have always been part of the fabric of the city, living on the streets and camping in secret places. And as Austin grew, so did the number of homeless people.
Before the 1980s, in the decades following the New Deal, homelessness was rare and largely isolated to older men in skid row districts of major cities. In his chronicle of American homelessness, historian Kenneth Kusmer says homelessness in the decades following World War II was less common than at any time since the mid-18th century. What changed that wasn’t a sudden upsurge in substance abuse or irresponsibility; it was a brutal confluence of economic trends, the destruction of cheap housing, and Reagan-era austerity.
In the Austin Homeless Final Report Provided to the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health by Dr. Donald Bauman claims that his study was “the first empirical investigation in Texas to comprehensively explore the characteristics and needs of the homeless, particularly their mental health needs.” A major portion of Baumann’s study focuses on “deinstitutionalized persons,” or those people released from “mental institutions” in Texas as a result of the deistitutionalization movement.
In 1985, former KVUE reporter Pat Comer lived on the streets and in the homeless shelters of Austin for weeks to report on the conditions. “One hundred to 200 men sleep on mats on the concrete floor with the rats and the roaches,” Comer said in a report. That same year, Austin formed its first homeless task force to find ways to serve the homeless population, including trying to provide medical care, food and a safe place to sleep for those without a home.
In 1985, the Austin City Council formed the Task Force on the Homeless as a response to the Salvation Army’s need for a new shelter location as the SA struggled to gain approval for a site. Members of the Task Force included people from Austin’s business community, citizens from various neighborhood around the city, special interest groups, and representatives from existing social service agencies. Additionally, a research group from the University of Texas was recruited to assist in technical and research to support the claims made by the Task Force.
In 1987, the Interim Planning Board for the Homeless began implementing Austin’s Five-Step Plan to End Homelessness.
Austin experienced an economic downturn in 1986 that ultimately led to an increase in the homeless population “as people lost their jobs or were evicted” from their homes. Because these people additionally had a decreased access to healthcare because of their financial situations, the Health and Human Services Department began to develop programs in order to fill “some of the gaps in service,” coordinating with existing services and agencies to identify issues and provide recommendations for change. They determined three assessments of the homeless population in Austin, Texas.
In the 1990s, Austin’s homeless ran up against another nationwide trend: downtown revitalization. After three decades of disinvestment, developers and investors wanted the central business districts back—and the unhoused were in the way. “It was intolerable,” says Jose E. Martinez, the original director of the downtown business lobby group, the Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA). “The homeless would go and spread-out cardboard and blankets and urinate and defecate on [businesses’] front doors. … The homeless would sleep on the benches, on the streets; throughout the day, they were out begging and demanding handouts.”
Jose E. Martinez, a former city planner, and his allies moved to take control of public space. In 1993, they won approval for a business improvement district, a special taxing area through which businesses can fund lobbying and private security. The money launched the DAA with Martinez at the helm, and in 1994, he started a “clean and safe” initiative. The hallmark feature was the Downtown Austin Rangers, essentially a group of roving cyclists supervised by the police who monitored the homeless and called the cops on them. They were “the ears and eyes for the police department,” Martinez says. The DAA also began lobbying for a citywide camping ban.
In liberal Austin, many residents balked at the proposal to ban camping. The Austin American-Statesman was flooded with letters opposing the proposal. “Trespassing on private property already is a crime; every place is either public property or private property, and a law higher than that of city ordinances requires human beings to sleep,” wrote Laurence Eighner, who published a bestselling memoir of homelessness in Austin in 1993. When the ban passed on first reading in July 1995, the council was “met with hisses and shouts from some of the 125 homeless people and their advocates in the audience,” the Statesman reported. Still, in January 1996, the measure became law by a single vote—prompting former Texas Observer editor Molly Ivins to spend a night in a sleeping bag on Congress Avenue in protest.
Within a year, the city council was on the verge of repealing the ordinance. More than 2,000 citations had been issued, but almost no one showed up to court, and all the city had done was shuffle the unhoused around. The policy had “succeeded in moving public camping farther out of sight from the business areas, but the problem has resurfaced in residential neighborhoods … [and] deep within brush and thickets,” reads a 1997 memo from staff to the city council.
In 1997, a new plan to help address the issue was presented, which eventually led to the 2004 opening of Austin’s Resource Center for the Homeless, or the ARCH, which provides meals, shelter and health care for some members of the city’s homeless population.
841,000 low-income households in Texas pay more than half their income for rent — a 25 percent increase since 2007. Of these households, 69 percent live in poverty and are at greater risk of becoming homeless. For every assisted household in Texas, three times as many low-income households are homeless or pay more than half their income for rent and do not receive any federal assistance due to limited funding.
According to ECHO’s 2017 Needs and Gaps Report, 60 percent of Travis County’s homeless population reported having had an issue with drugs and alcohol at some point in their lifetime, and 17 percent reported consuming drugs and/or alcohol every day, or almost every day, for the past month. 67 percent of Travis County’s homeless population reported they cannot access employment or do not have earned income, and 36 percent reported having unresolved legal issues, which could result in incarceration or legal fines.
A 2017 city audit confirmed that the criminalization of these life-sustaining activities in Austin creates barriers to exiting homelessness, and a 2018 report by Grassroots Leadership and Gathering Ground Theatre substantiated those findings. Documenting the experiences of people directly impacted by city ordinances punishing sitting/lying, camping, and soliciting, their report established that job loss, release from jail, domestic violence, and scarce mental health and addiction support are primary causes of homelessness. Police enforcement through ticketing and arrests only aggravates these causes, contributing to a lack of rest, harm to physical and mental health, and difficulty securing sustained employment and housing.
In the United States, individuals and families qualify as homeless under four federally defined categories: (1) literally homeless, (2) in imminent risk of homelessness, (3) homeless under federal statutes, and (4) fleeing or attempting to flee domestic violence.9 According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 408,150 households, or 553,742 individuals, fell into one of these categories in 2017.As of January 2018 in Texas, 25,310 individuals qualified as homeless under these criteria. Recent data for Austin and greater Travis County, captured on January 27, 2018, showed a total of 2,147 unsheltered and sheltered individuals experiencing homelessness.
In June 2019, the Austin City Council voted essentially to decriminalize camping and resting in public, which opponents argued made the downtown area less safe. Mayor Steve Adler and other proponents of the decision argued it allowed people to become more visible. Opponents argued it led to more public health and safety issues in Central Austin and in other reaches of the city, as encampments cropped up following the decision. The dispute triggered a back-and-forth between local and state leaders after Gov. Greg Abbott joined the discussion in October 2019. Abbott threatened state intervention if the city didn’t address public defecation and drug use, citing (sometimes incorrectly) evidence from social media. City Council did eventually reinstate some bans on public camping and resting, specifically in the downtown area. A day later, Abbott ordered the Texas Department of Transportation to clear underpasses of encampments. Abbott then reappropriated state-owned land just south of the airport to serve as a temporary camp until a shelter could be built downtown.
The number of people experiencing homelessness in Austin hit a 10-year high in 2020, according to a new report. Data from the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition’s point-in-time count show that 2,506 people were homeless on the night of the annual census, Jan. 25. More than half of them – 1,574 – were on the street that night, an increase of 45 percent over last year. Black people are still overrepresented proportionately within the homeless community. While they make up roughly 8 percent of the city’s population, 36.5 percent of those surveyed in January identified as black. White people were also disproportionately represented, though not as much. The survey also showed that most people experiencing homelessness in the area are not here from out of state. Most of those surveyed told volunteers they first became homeless in Austin – 63 percent, a slight increase over 2018 – or in Texas –19.4 percent. Seventeen percent said they’d first experienced homelessness out of state.
Texas captured national attention with the devastating collapse of the state’s deregulated energy grid. Millions of people went without power and water for days, leaving mutual aid networks to compensate for institutional negligence. In the capital city, downtown areas remained lit, and hotel prices surged while East Austin faced severe outages. Meanwhile, as people scrambled to find food, shelter, and heat, no one was more vulnerable than the unhoused.
Local leaders have recently been cagey on homelessness decriminalization. This “negotiably progressive” dynamic was present in Austin City Council’s passing of the HEAL initiative in February 2021, which will partially reinstate camping bans in select areas.
March 18, 2021
Current ECHO Chair Alberta Phillips writes: Consider that African Americans make up a plurality – the largest share – of those experiencing homelessness in Austin: 36%. How is that possible in a city in which Black residents comprise roughly 8% of Austin’s total population?
Mathematically, that is more than four times our numbers in the overall population. By contrast, non-Hispanic whites make up 33%; and Latinos, 25% of those experiencing homelessness. Asians, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and multi-racial persons make up the remainder.
Those figures serve as a reality check that cannot be explained without looking at the root causes, which for too long have kept African Americans at the bottom of the pile of people in Austin who are prioritized for housing. Historically, unsheltered white residents have received such priority.