A Bipartisan Attack on the Homeless in Texas

Texas Republicans are known for their particularly vicious reactionary politics. But Heidi Sloan — a socialist candidate for the House of Representatives in Austin — argues here that when it comes to issues like homelessness, many of the state’s Democrats aren’t much better.

Two homeless people sit on ground on Guadalupe Street in Austin, Texas. (Flickr)

Texans live on the front lines of class struggle in America. Amid massive income inequality, the lowest legal minimum wage in the country, more worker deaths than any other state, and almost no protections for tenants, we face a familiar enemy: capitalists and their representatives in government. In Texas, they tend to be particularly cruel and raw. Our state government is led by a far-right Republican Party that traffics in racist and xenophobic fearmongering and punitive policy that exploits and targets marginalized people.

In Austin, where I live, we also face well-funded, reactionary opposition from groups that are often willing to back Democrats as long as policy is to their liking. In the campaigns I’ve been a part of here, we’ve faced fierce opposition from both camps. In recent months, this opposition has grown vicious as we’ve waged a campaign to stand with our poorest neighbors against laws that criminalized their very existence.

In 1996, at the request of the Downtown Austin Alliance (a business advocacy group made up of “owners of commercial properties valued over $500,000” in downtown Austin) and Mayor Bruce Todd, a Democrat, Austin criminalized homelessness through three new city ordinances. Life on the street is nearly impossible without sleeping and lying down in public, camping (the definition of which includes simply resting with one’s belongings), and asking for money. All were made illegal by the 1996 ordinances.

After twelve years, tens of thousands of tickets, and many subsequent arrests, a movement of community leaders in Austin formed a coalition called Homes Not Handcuffs. I organized with this group of directly impacted Austinites, service providers, advocates, faith leaders, and legal aid providers. We spent a year and a half working to repeal these laws.

Remarkably, we were successful. On June 20, the Austin City Council voted to change them. Though the repeal was not total, the victory was enormous and far-reaching.

Ten days later, before the new ordinances could even go into effect, the right-wing backlash began.

The campaign from reactionaries has been relentless. Ted Cruz staffers, the county Republican Party, the city’s police union, and Republican Texas governor Greg Abbott have all fanned the flames of anti-homeless sentiment. A credulous local media has taken the bait and boosted the Republican fearmongering over and over and over.

This scapegoating is not confined to Austin. Republicans have recently stepped up attacks on people experiencing homelessness as part of a larger propaganda effort to tarnish majority Democratic cities in the eyes of suburban swing voters. Donald Trump has launched threats against California cities, and Fox News shoveled falsehoods in more than fifty segments over the summer. The rhetoric has already had tragic effects, as people experiencing homelessness have recently been assaulted in Portland, murdered in New York, and set on fire while sleeping in Los Angeles.

People without shelter deserve dignity. But this fight is about much more than homelessness. The controversy surrounding homelessness in Austin follows repeated attempts by the state government to roll back any protections for the poor and working class passed by Texas municipalities. Austin and other cities in Texas have faced vicious counterattacks from the state government and right-wing media — from bans on fracking, to regulations on plastic bags, to fair-chance hiring laws, local minimum wage laws, ordinances mandating employers provide paid sick leave, and even reforms like laws mandating occasional water breaks for construction workers.

While all of these policy bans make life harder for the Texas working class in general, preemption of housing voucher discrimination, which allows landlords to deny people a place to live if part of their rent comes through public assistance, compounds the struggle of people in need of housing. When Texas cities pass progressive laws, Republicans at the statehouse go on the offensive.

On Monday, November 4, Governor Abbott will make good on past threats and send the Department of Transportation and, potentially, the Department of Public Safety out to clear people from the overpasses beneath which they have been taking refuge from the winter wind. He has posted signs, advising them to move to shelters which are already full and have been full (or, in some cases, more than full) for a long time.

Meanwhile, the Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA) has thrown their weight against the expanded rights of people experiencing homelessness. These business owners, representing some of the wealthiest people in Austin, helped file an amicus briefing threatening the rights of people experiencing homelessness across the country. Several council members who have been hostile to decriminalization seized this opportunity and are attempting to seriously dial back the council’s June decision.

The DAA and Greater Chamber of Commerce’s proposed solution to this crisis is to pour millions of their dollars into the creation of a “safe” camping area. Their plan cites the actions of the cities of San Diego and Minneapolis. These are extremely large, hangar-like tents with hundreds of people inside. Trading individuals’ ability to sleep in their own structure, in a location of their own choosing, for mass sleeping quarters is inhumane. Requiring people to stay in these structures or be criminalized is unjust and indicates a lack of understanding of how to humanely deal with those in the midst of homelessness.

In Texas, the working class is presented with a false choice. We can side with a hateful, extremist right wing, blatantly beholden to the interests of businesses above the needs of people. Or we can support a Democratic Party utterly dependent on and often subservient to capitalists intent on a slightly less cruel version of the same thing, at least on good days. We need a different way forward.

From health care to immigration, Democrats must straddle the line between a working-class constituency and the donor class that finances their campaigns. The Democratic Party will side with the poor and the working class, but only when they feel pressure from below or can opportunistically differentiate themselves from the Republican Party. The heavyweights of the Texas Democratic Party like Lloyd Doggett, Beto O’Rourke, Wendy Davis, and Julián Castro may soon take up the mantle of fighting for the houseless poor — a shift that housing organizers should be credited for. But I’m not counting on people in power to hold the line against a Republican Party that fights to win.

This weekend, organizations like Democratic Socialists of America, Grassroots Leadership, Workers Defense Project, Texas Fair Defense Project, and Austin Justice Coalition will rally, turning out our neighbors, people we have canvassed, and people who are directly affected by the lack of affordable or permanent supportive housing in our city. We will hand out coats and care packs. We will rely on a grassroots network of volunteers to push back against the clearing out of overpass encampments.

Beyond this weekend, we have to make nationwide demands that will actually alleviate the housing and homelessness crisis. To keep people in their homes and maintain a sufficient level of affordable housing stock, we need universal rent control, “just cause” tenant protections from eviction, and a massive investment in beautiful, high-quality social housing that’s built to last.

And we have to build grassroots pressure and working-class power to win. Because as long as we wait on “champions” from on high to create change in a broken democratic system, we will stay where we are with a boot on our necks. But when we stand shoulder to shoulder and fight, we will win the world that we deserve.