An Open Letter to the Citizens of Austin, Texas
House the Homeless Takes a Stand
As we are well aware, the Downtown Austin Business Alliance (DABA), the
East Sixth Street Community Association (ESCA) and Sixth Street Austin
(aka) Pecan Street Owners Association), among other businesses, which
includes, but certainly not limited to, the Alamo Draft House, B.D
Rileys, Iron Cactus Cafe, the Margarita Bar, El Sol Y La Luna, Parkside,
Blind Pig, and the Old Pecan Street Cafe are all promoting the expansion
of the anti-panhandling ordinance from 7:00 PM to 7:00 AM to
around-the-clock, 24 hours a day, in the downtown area.
House the Homeless (HTH), the oldest, grassroots, all volunteer, action
homeless organization in the State of Texas, made up of people
experiencing homelessness, formerly homeless people and others wishing
to end homelessness, is strongly against the expansion of this
ordinance. Although HTH has stated repeatedly that it does not condone
panhandling, and it outright condemns aggressive panhandling, its
members will fight to their last breath for a person’s right to ask his
or her fellow human beings for help.
A Fair Wage For A Fair Day’s Work
The President of ESCA has said with conviction that “All of our
businesses pay a Living Wage or more than a Living Wage.” This is a
blatant untruth. Upon investigation, House the Homeless has learned
that none of the businesses listed here pay a Living Wage. In fact, they
all take advantage of a loop hole in the Fair Labor Standards Act of
1938 for which businesses had previously lobbied Congress. Presently,
the Federal Minimum Wage is $7.25 an hour, which is less than $15,000
per year. Where people are earning a living based on “tips”, employers
can pay these employees as little as $2.13 an hour so long as you and I
as patrons, bring the wage up to the Federal Minimum Wage. We tip to
express our gratitude to individuals who provide us good or exceptional
service as a way of saying “thank you”. Who among you realize that you
are being relied upon to provide the base pay of each and everyone of
these employees? (Note. B.D. Rileys pays its’ employees only $2.81 per hour).
Again, this gouging of patrons merely brings the pay amount up to the Federal Minimum Wage,
which has been widely known to be wholly inadequate to attain housing.
In fact, according to the last several US Conference of Mayors’ Reports,
insufficient income is a leading cause of homelessness. They point out
that no where in America, can a person earning at the Federal Minimum
Wage get into and keep basic rental housing.
What ever happened to “A Fair Wage For a Fair Day’s Work”? Do these
businesses act responsibly or morally if they don’t even pay their
employees enough to make ends meet so they can afford basic housing?
Employers who benefit from the labor of their workers need to ensure that the people working for them are able meet their core needs. This is known as a Living Wage. This means, at a minimum, paying a person who works 40 hours in a week enough to afford basic food, clothing and shelter (including utilities).
Lack of Cooperation and Resistance:
Unfortunately, neither DABA, ESCA, nor 6ixth Street Austin have
participated in or contributed one thin dime to alleviating the root
causes of homelessness. When the City of Austin reached out to the
Federal government and borrowed eight (8) million dollars to create the
current ARCH, the only DABA contribution was to insist that there be
metal detectors at the front doors. In addition to serving as
president of House the Homeless, I operate Legal Aid for the Homeless,
the 5th Resource Center for the homeless since I started in 1989. None
of these business organizations have supported any of these centers.
It was in 1995 (circa) that House the Homeless first engaged the DABA
(then known as DAA) when it pressed for the passage of the “No Camping”
Ordinance. The issue set the city on fire. House the Homeless took out
a full-page ad in the Sunday Austin American Statesman showing how it
was cheaper to house and job train all homeless people, as opposed to
jailing them. However, facts such as those did not deter the DAA.
Everyone had a position and everyone chimed in. Steve Fromholtz,
singer/songwriter, camped out with us, as did Molly Ivans, who said
“Outlaw camping? That’s just silly. I’m a Texas gal and I like to
camp.” Bruce Springstein was in town and in support, he gave House the
Homeless proceeds from his t-shirt sales. All the while, the DAA
insisted that this was an “urgent matter”, and that once they got
immediate relief, we could “slow things down and start looking at
deeper, more substantive issues and causes of homelessness.”
Additionally, rather than pay wages that would enable minimum wage
workers to avoid experiencing homelessness, the DAA has dipped into the
city coffers and funded in part, their own private police force – The Downtown
Rangers. They are separate and apart from our police force – the Austin
Police Department. But they didn’t stop there. The DAA said that it
was “the homeless who were filling our jails with drunken episodes, and
thus creating the need for a “Community” Court. House the Homeless
contended that this was not true. Later, when the statistics came out
showing that the biggest offenders were University of Texas students,
the DAA remained undeterred by the facts, and went on to press for the creation
of the Community Court, separate from the Municipal Court only one block away.
And again, this comes at a significant cost to taxpayers.
*Note: Today, in the Austin Metropolitan Area there are only two (2)
substance abuse treatment beds for single, adult males outside of the
criminal justice system. They have it set up so that these beds are
reserved for people who are in violation of the “Quality of Life
Ordinances,” i.e. no sitting, no lying down, no camping, etc. These are
all ordinances promoted by these businesses directed at people
experiencing homelessness and all under the banner of urgency.
This refrain has been repeated over and over again with the passing of
each “Quality of Life Ordinance” – no camping, no sitting, no lying
down, no aggressive panhandling etc., all of which the DAA has rushed
toward passage declaring an urgent need each time. With no subsequent
significant efforts to address the root causes of homelessness being
offered, House the Homeless can no longer consider espousers of such
mantra as “honest brokers”.
In a city that so dramatically lacks resources for people experiencing
homelessness; (If you have ever played musical chairs as a child, you
know that 4,400 people cannot easily fit into 650 emergency beds) can we
constitutionally pass muster under the necessity argument? And in a
City where 55,000+ University students are channeled into the
Entertainment District would we be able to defend exclusionary practices
regarding freedom of speech arguments?
The Criminalization of the Homelessness
In fact, actions by the DAA have collectively created what House the
Homeless refers to as the Criminalization of Homelessness Cycle. The
Cycle works like this: (1) businesses pay so little that is causes
minimum wage workers to fall into homelessness; (2) there is a wholly
inadequate response with less than 650 emergency shelter beds (for
every man, woman and child), for an actual head count of about 4,400
people; (3) The City Council (at the urging of the DAA passes “Quality
of Life” laws against camping, sitting, lying down, loitering,
solicitation, etc.; (4) citizens can’t pay $200-$500 fines and must work
for free “Community Service.” Some have called this “slave labor;” (5)
workers are later jailed when Class C criminal tickets go to warrant and
people are forced to panhandle to survive, but are labeled “criminals;”
and (6) people can’t rent or find jobs due to their criminal records
and remain homeless.
The DAA continues to say that they are attacking the act, not the
actor…. and panhandling, not the people who are panhandlers. But
there is danger in this broad brush approach. The Chronicle just
published an expose entitled Panhandlers for God. They focused on an
organization calling itself Austin Restoration Ministries or ARM. They
were described as an organized group of panhandlers who aggressively
demanded attention and money to support what was described as a dubious
substance abuse treatment ministry.
The first thing that we need to note is that ARM’s behavior as described
is clearly illegal under the Anti-Aggressive Solicitation Ordinance.
Also, as depicted, it should be repudiated. What was described was a
highly organized scam, relying on intimidation to commit highway
robbery. House the Homeless would be among the first to condemn the
suggested activity. However, one does have to ask why the citizen who
was interviewed failed to act and report the illegal activity, and then
press for a legal response of the existing law, to have it stopped.
There is something very disquieting in this and the recent findings of
the ACLU and their Open Records Request. This revealed that the point
person for the DAA anti-panhandling initiative, Bill Brice, likewise had
not attempted to use the existing law before he and his business buddies
launched into yet another “emergency” response to pass laws against
persons experiencing homelessness. Nonetheless, the alleged activity
cited in the Chronicle is that of an organization, not individuals.
But the question of reporting is greater than just this limited view. I’ve read in two reports and had one conversation that Front Steps is supporting the expansion of this ordinance because of two frightening encounters with aggressive panhandlers by their Board members. This unacceptable behavior and should not be tolerated. The suggestion that they should have reported the incident to the Police was waved off with “neither they nor the aggressive panhandlers would have waited for the police to arrive.” Well maybe the victim would not wait, but I’ll guarantee you that the person standing on the corner is not about to abandon his or her corner. And how are they going to know that you placed a call to the police on your cell phone? They wouldn’t. Life is not always convenient. There is a law in place against aggressive pan handling and just because we would be too inconvenienced to have it enforced is no justification to enact yet another law…especially one that curtails freedom of speech. Again, I guarantee you that if you pull one of the aggressive panhandlers away from their source of income for half a day to explain their aggressive behavior, you will see a sea change. But as it sits now we see no complaints and no efforts to enforce the current law.
Targeting the Homeless:
As stated, the DAA and all these businesses continue to contend that
they are “not targeting the homeless; rather, they are targeting
behavior”. Really? Consider this: when House the Homeless pointed out
that firemen were stepping into traffic (with bag pipes) to solicit
motorists for money, an exception was made and a state law was changed.
What will happen when the Salvation Army asks for an exception for its
bell ringers? When the Austin Advocate asks for an exception for its
vendors, will it be granted?
The other day while leaving ARCH and racing to a meeting, a
person experiencing homelessness ran up to me and presented me with a
ticket that he had received for “Aggressive Panhandling.” He is a
struggling Austin Musician who plays an acoustic guitar, is homeless,
and plays with his guitar box open for contributions. He insisted that
he had no sign and the only words that came out of his mouth were song.
Racing away, I told him how important it was that I get a copy of the
ticket. Clearly he was not aggressively panhandling. But the question
sits on the table like an 800 pound baby elephant.
If this ordinance were to be expanded, in the “Live Music Capitol of the
World”, would you again write an exception to the ordinance to allow for
such activity in the downtown Entertainment District? Firemen, bell
ringers, newspaper solicitors… how many exceptions before the charade is
exposed and it becomes clear to everyone that people experiencing
homelessness are being targeted.
What about the Neighborhoods?
The DAA and all the associated businesses cry for relief from the
“siege” they suffer under by people experiencing homelessness, and those
who panhandle for survival. But what do they say about their concern
for the neighborhoods around them who would clearly then become victims
of the relief that they seek. The business mentality is, “I got mine…good luck
to you.” Is that good community partnership? No. It is elitism. Good
community citizenry is evidenced by the City of Austin, who pays
a living wage to the least among its employees and to Travis County, who
worked to get to that position, and to CVAN R Automotive, Wheatsville
Co-Op, Run Tex and others who pay living wages or have pledged to work
toward them because it is the ethical thing to do.
This is a new day and a new way. We must all be our brother’s keepers.
Everyone should be paid a fair wage for a fair day’s work, and everyone
should have a roof over their head (other than a bridge). Until that
day, House the Homeless will continue to stand up with our brothers and
sisters who ask, “Buddy, can you spare a dime.”
What Do The Surveys Say?
On Tuesday, August 19, 2008, the City of Austin received the
results of its Commissioned Solicitation Survey from the University of
Texas School of Social Work. They had interviewed 103 individuals,
specifically excluding any kind of organized solicitation, and found
that: (1) These individuals were soliciting (panhandling) for daily
survival and (2) Making persistent efforts to work, with a long work
history. They found that 51 percent of those surveyed wanted job
training and 52 percent were looking for work.
In the Community Action Network (CAN) Unsheltered Homeless Count Survey,
conducted in Austin in May, 2007, over 200 respondents were interviewed.
When asked as to the cause of their homelessness, 100 said it was
because of “being unable to pay either their rent or mortgage.” Another
188 said it was “due to unemployment.”
In a third survey, this time conducted by the City of
Houston Health and Human Services Department, 345 persons were
interviewed. When asked their reason for their street solicitation,
250, or 72.5 percent, stated “income for survival.” When asked if they
enjoyed street solicitation, 280, or 81.2 percent, said “No.” When
asked what would be required for them to stop street solicitation, 196,
or 56.8 percent, responded with “employment.”
A fourth survey was conducted by House the Homeless, Inc.,
in Austin in November, 2007. In this instance, 526 people experiencing
homelessness were successfully interviewed. Thirty-six point eight
(36.8) percent said they were working at the time of the interview.
*Remember, the U.S. government found 42 percent of those experiencing
homelessness nationwide were working at the time of their interview.
When asked if they would work a 40 hour week job if they were sure it
would pay them enough to afford basic food, clothing and shelter
(including utilities) (in other words, a living wage), 468, or 90.7
percent, said they would work 40 hours for a Living Wage.
In a subsequent fifth survey, conducted January 1, 2009 by
House the Homeless, 429 people experiencing homelessness were
interviewed. When asked for the cause of their homelessness, “job loss”
and “insufficient income” ranked as the 1st and 2nd answers
The findings from the surveys are self evident. People
want to work, and they want to be paid living wages. But, regardless,
the DAA has once again refused to not take responsibility for their role
in both creating and maintaining homelessness in our town by failing to
pay fair living wages. They continue to act as non-community partners
who are some how entitled to their own private police force, their own
set of laws and a separate court system all at the tax payers’ expense,
while at the same time, failing to exercise basic moral and ethical
standards by paying a fair wage for a fair day’s work. Instead, they
are relying on the compassion of their patrons to step up and fill their
moral void while they press for more and more laws and ordinances to
isolate and insulate themselves and their businesses.
Needs and Solutions:
Bottom line…people experiencing homelessness fall into two
distinct categories: those who can work and those who cannot work.
* We must help complete the work of the “Let’s Get to Work” Task
Force. We must ensure that their idea of involving Community Sponsorship
to move people out of transitional housing, secure basic additional
education and then secure Living Wage jobs on a temporarily supported
basis is paramount for the basic health of our community. It is simply
not reasonable to expect that after we have put them through the
Continuum of Care Process and brushed them off, dried them out and
prepared them for work, that we can simply then put them back into an
under-funded economic system and expect them to thrive. The rate of
recidivism will be close to 100 percent.
As long as there is no clear pathway that will move people from
homelessness into emergency shelter, then into transitional housing and
then into a living wage job that affords them regular housing and a
reasonable opportunity to remain housed, while receiving adequate health
care, then for that homeless individual, Front Steps, Caritas, House the
Homeless and all the rest of us are falling short.
* We must promote such innovative programs as Habitat on Wheels
being promoted by Mobile Loaves and Fishes that offers truly affordable
housing based in a true community of active participation and love.
* We must put our preconceived prejudices aside and seriously
consider and actively promote the type of “Wet Housing” that is being
promoted by Front Steps. The current approach to substance abuse is
limited, exclusionary, prohibitively costly and simply not working.
* For those who cannot work, we need the federal government to fix
the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) levels so that people can be
* For those who can work, we must provide a Universal Living Wage.
Imagine working five or six days a week and with no time off and no vacation.
If you were to let the stress overwhelm you and not show up just one day, you are
quickly on a direct path to homelessness. And to expect that these same
workers who work a full-time job at McDonalds, who still do not have
enough to pay the rent after exposure to constant performance and time
pressures while sweating over a hot grill, can long avoid homelessness
is short sighted and unrealistic.
The Federal government isn’t moving so fast to include the minimum wage worker.
So we as affected Austinites must act. We must provide our own leadership to create change.
Since House the Homeless first devised the Universal Living Wage Formula
in 1997, the Federal government has created “Locality Pay,” and the U.S.
Military has moved from the VAH pay system to BAH – Base Housing
Allowance, which recognizes that we are a nation of thousands of
economies. And now the Federal government, itself, recognizes
geographic considerations as well through its Locality Pay enhancement
stipend program. That just leaves “We the People” out. Just as the
Federal government abdicated its role of housing our nation’s poor under
the Regan Administration, causing homelessness to percolate up in our
urban centers (Austin included), it would seem that they are leaving the
wage issue to us as well.
The Federal government isn’t moving so fast to include the minimum wage worker in their new found realization tht the wage must be indexed to the local cost of housing because again, we are anation of thousands of economies..
Every time that Congress raises the Federal
minimum wage, it is tamped down by short sighted business interests
that fail to realize the potential retraining cost savings. And the
limited increases are always an amount which is less than that needed to
enable workers to reach the Federal Poverty Guideline. The result is
economic slavery of millions of people, now evidenced by the 3.8 million
people experiencing homelessness nationwide and over 4,000 in Austin again this year.
So we as affected Austinites must act. We must provide our own leadership
to create change.
If we were to ask a person experiencing homelessness for a
letter grade on how we are doing, and if they were honest, the answer
would be “F”. The problems of homelessness are being left up to the
communities of America to resolve. And resolve them we must, but it
will require that each of us participate as cohesive community
partners…with no exceptions. This is a new day with new opportunities
for our businesses to assume the leadership roles that they deserve. But
until our businesses recognize this and join hands with us in a force
strong enough to defeat homelessness, this societal disease will only
continue to grow and divide our community.
I went to the corner and held up a sign today
Someone rudely told me “I have bills to pay”
I thought how lucky a roof and a bed
Luxury like that would go to my head
How can you sit there and look down your nose
Because my hair is messy, or maybe my clothes
All you see is someone you think is drunk or full of drugs
Someone diseased and full of bugs
It’s amazing how totally wrong you can be
I’m completely sober, no bugs, AIDS, or VD
I’m a good girl, God’s laws I don’t break
But tonight you’ll sell yourself for a few drinks and a steak
Although it may take 4 hours because of people like you
to get “two burgers please” from the dollar menu
It wouldn’t take much just a five or a one
Not your car or house or fist born son
What harm would it be for you to give
a little money to help me live
And although my life is harder than you could have guessed
I smile through each day knowing I am truly loved and blessed
-Deborah Smith 2009
Richard R. Troxell
House the Homeless
Livable Incomes Coordinator
National Coalition for the Homeless