Updated: May 6, 2021
Why I'm voting no on Prop B
There was a lot to get used to when I first moved from my small Texas town to Austin for college. I vividly remember parking my little silver Chevy Cavalier outside of a parking garage on the first day of summer orientation for 10-15 minutes because I couldn’t figure out how to work the ticket machine that would lift the gate and let me in. Luckily, someone took pity on me after what seemed to be an eternity and helped me figure it out.
I have countless little stories like this of moments where a young, bright-eyed, naive, and somewhat ignorant small-town boy did his best to figure things out and make his way in a new city. I remember my first interaction with an unhoused person - which I would have called a ‘homeless person’ at the time. They asked for some money, and I fished in my wallet to give them a few bucks.
I found it so bizarre and somewhat unthinkable that there would be ‘so many’ unhoused people in Austin. I knew that poverty was a problem in my small town, but I had never seen unhoused people on the streets there regularly at all. Certainly not in the numbers that were present in this new weird city. There were numbers of unhoused people along the Drag, a section of Guadeloupe street by UT with a healthy amount of shopping and restaurants. They congregated underneath the overpass downtown and by the Salvation Army on 7th street, and many intersections usually had 1-2 unhoused people asking for money.
Over time I learned that I wasn’t supposed to give cash - not because it wouldn’t help but because I knew I didn’t have enough to give to every unhoused person I saw. If I’m being honest, this realization came as a relief at the time. I was still in the closet not only to the world, but to myself as well, and somehow seeing unhoused people made me uneasy because they represented what I believed would be my future if anyone were to find out about my sexuality.
Before long, I was saying “sorry, no change,” like a skilled city dweller who had to deal with unhoused people every day, and it didn’t take too long before I didn’t even bat an eye at the interactions. ‘Sorry, no change,’ became my default response regardless of whether I had cash on me or not. It was my defense against the ‘attack’ that was an unhoused person asking for help, and I justified it by saying that limiting interaction with them was the safe thing to do as well.
After a year or so of college, I remember visiting my cousins in Fredericksburg where the topic of homelessness came up when we were eating dinner. After I explained how I had learned to interact with unhoused people, my cousin Marlee who is a few years younger than me asked “But why don’t you help them?”
Marlee’s father interjected on my behalf to explain the reasoning of not helping unhoused people, and the conversation covered much of what I’ve already written about in this piece: 1) too many unhoused people to help them all, 2) safety and 3) how it would ‘encourage’ them to continue to beg.
Everything he said was in defense of my position and actions, but I couldn’t help but think twice as Marlee in her unbridled optimism and immeasurable faith in helping others continued to press for the idea of offering help.
I had gained comfort from the simple response of “sorry, no cash,” because it let me focus on my own life: how I didn’t really have money to give with the tens of thousands of loans I was taking out to get my degree like I was supposed to. That said, hearing my cousin continue to advocate for helping the less fortunate just made me feel like I was jaded. And while I could point out why her arguments were naive, financially short-sided, and ultimately too small to help with the larger problem of homelessness, I couldn’t fight off the feeling that all I was doing was denying a problem to make me feel a bit better about myself and my life.
I share these stories to give a brief explanation of how my views of homelessness, and unhoused people, have changed over time. How I have looked at them with disdain, how I have tried to minimize or deny their lived experiences in the past, and how I have gradually learned that there isn’t really a single easy solution for homelessness. This is relevant because Austin has an upcoming local election on May 1st with a proposal called Prop B that would ‘ban public camping.’
For context, in 2019 the Austin City Council lifted our city’s public camping ban leading to more and more public campsites popping up in our downtown area and under overpasses in certain neighborhoods where they weren’t present before. What I used to believe was ‘so many’ unhoused people when I first came to Austin pales in comparison to how visible that population is now.
As a result, there was a group formed called “Save Austin Now,” that lobbied to get Prop B added to our local election ballot - with the help of hundreds of thousands worth of donations from our business and investment community of course. They initially failed to secure enough signatures to get the proposal on the ballot in August of 2020 but succeeded in February of this year in getting the 20,000 required signatures.
As an Austin resident, and recipient of the large amount of outreach funded by Save Austin Now’s corporate donations, I can say that the messaging for their campaign back in February was vague at best, and blatantly misrepresenting information at worst. They positioned Prop B as something that would “help the homeless,” without providing information that they were seeking to reinstate the camping ban.
The current language of the proposition that is on the ballot states:
“Shall an ordinance be adopted that would create a criminal offense and a penalty for sitting or lying down on a public sidewalk or sleeping outdoors in and near the Downtown area and the area around The University of Texas campus; create a criminal offense and penalty for solicitation, defined as requesting money or another thing of value, at specific hours and locations or for solicitation in a public area that is deemed aggressive in manner; create a criminal offense and penalty for camping in any public area not designated by the Parks and Recreation Department.”
It’s clear that there is nothing within the proposition to ‘help the homeless.‘ My problem is that it goes one step further than the “sorry, no change,” response and penalizes the experience of being unhoused in a very large area within the city. In fact, by making existing as an unhoused person a criminal offense with citations and associated fines, the proposition makes it more likely that Austin’s unhoused population will have criminal records as arrest warrants will be issued for anyone who is unable to pay these new penalties. Most folx understand that it is much more difficult to qualify for essential services like housing and employment with criminal records.
Rather than helping our unhoused, the proposition would further perpetuate the cycle of criminal offense and poverty that resulted in these folx being unhoused in the first place. All of this so that we don’t have to view the very real problem that our city has with homelessness.
It is more focused on clearing out our unhoused populations from view to make us feel better about our city than it is at offering solutions to this problem.
Discomfort & Creating Space
This subject, like so many in our lives, is tough to discuss. I believe that is for two specific reasons:
The topic of unhoused people & poverty is inextricably tied to finances, and even though our personal finances are not necessarily involved they do factor into our view of unhoused people because we think of how much, or how little, we have to give just like I did all those years ago when I first moved to Austin.
When the subject is examined through discussion, rather than offering a simple Yes/No vote on a proposal deemed to ‘help save Austin,’ it’s easy to see that there is no simple solution, and that is disheartening. “If I can’t solve this problem, what’s the point?”
Both of these reasons can illicit our fear or stress response in our bodies. The sympathetic nervous system kicks in and our primal urges to fight, flight, or freeze takeover all in an effort to remove the stressor. This can result in avoidance, denial, or attempts to sweep a problem under the rug with a ‘solution’ sold to us as something that will “help the homeless.”
My work as an authenticity advocate is helping folx better understand their stress (or fear) responses and how that can ultimately lead them to make decisions and take actions that are not aligned with their authentic self. The first thing we do is build awareness around whatever is creating discomfort in their lives, whether that be existing in the closet, or seeing visible signs of poverty in a city that used to be hidden. We then work to build sympathy for ourselves and eventually empathy for others as we identify ways in which our lived experiences are similar and areas where they are different.
This work eventually yields to identifying behavior or beliefs that don’t serve us or others, and we work to do better once we know better to borrow from Maya Angelou. This is the work of creating space and living authentically.
I’m sharing this essay on BraveNewLove despite the fact that many folx in the BNL community do not live in Austin as another story to model that work. My hope is that these stories of my lived experience and evolving views that I am not proud to admit that I once held would empower others to interact with areas of life that bring them discomfort and minimize the shame, fear, and anger that drive us when we are in our stress response.
Making a Change
Authenticity work is fundamentally grounded in change because it challenges us to examine our default modes of operating which are heavily informed by our stress response. We can easily get bogged down in the challenges, struggles, and obligations of our daily lives all of which trigger our sympathetic nervous system.
It's understandable that when we are in that predominate state of fight, flight, or freeze that it is hard to keep up with things like local elections, much less have the time to truly look into the messages directed at us like the ones by Save Austin Now which is still touting that they are 'helping' unhoused people by trying to associate themselves with initiatives like the Community First Village despite no affiliation and the fact that their proposal would make it harder for unhoused people to get access to housing through support programs.
The sad irony is that when we operate in those modes, we only fulfill our own message of "sorry, no change," because we fail to see that while we might not be able to solve big problems like homelessness on our own individually, we very much can through collective action.
When we move past the "sorry, no change," message, we come up with solutions like the proposal to rehouse 3000 people experiencing homelessness within three years that came out of the Summit to Address Unsheltered Homelessness in Austin this spring.
More importantly, we begin to see that what we once believed to be impossible at one point in our lives, is very much within reach.
If you'd like to discuss any aspect of this story more or share your thoughts on living authentically, please don't hesitate to reach out to me at email@example.com.
I wanted to share some ways to get involved with those interested in taking action on this topic.
1) Vote No on Prop B on 5/1. You can find polling locations here.
2) If you'd like to help provide rides to polling stations on election day, you can sign up here.
1) Call your representatives in the Texas state government to discuss their positions on House Bill 1925 and Senate Bill 987 which would criminalize homelessness on a statewide level. You can identify your representatives here.