On the New Offensive Against the Homeless in ATX | Interview with Seneca Savoie

The attacks on homelessness have been heating up in Austin in the midst of the pandemic and a breakdown in services more generally.  Part of this debate has between state and municipal powers, as Governor Greg Abbott (R) has repeatedly threatened what is seen as a more tolerant Austin city leadership if the city does not take a harder line on homelessness, with specific attention on banning public camping.  But another debate has opened up between activists, on the one hand, who have been trying to defend the city’s homeless population, and small business owners and the “suburbs,” on the other hand, who believe that visible poverty drives down business and property values.  On February 4, the Austin City Council voted on three specific resolutions to address homelessness: to acquire the Candlewood Suites Hotel and turn it into housing and service center for the homeless (passed 10-1);  the Homeless Encampment Assistance Link (HEAL) resolution that claims to provide services for homeless folks, but also introduces a ban on camping in 4 areas with large encampments (passed 8-3); and a certification of a petition for a referendum on the ballot in May to reintroduce the public camping ban in Austin.  While most activists have called the acquisition of the hotel a victory, the May referendum also means that conservative forces (led by a right-wing group called “Save Austin Now”) are also pushing forward at the same time.  Section44’s Snehal Shingavi spoke with Seneca Savoie, field organizer for Texas Appleseed and former leadership committee member of Austin DSA, for perspectives on the fight around homelessness in Austin.

Q: What was the February 4th City Council meeting like?  Can you describe the political formations that are mobilizing?

A: The meeting was pretty intense.  You have a cluster forming around the council members from the suburbs on the Council—Mackenzie Kelly (District 6), Ann Kitchen (District 5)—from that block, there is a desire to move towards allocations for housing, but they really, really want security for those allocations.  The HEAL initiative is basically a bargain where they provide targeted resources for folks in specific camps, but then close those camps down in exchange for providing housing.  It’s a version of what is called “Focused deterrence” in policing strategies [ed. “focused deterrence” refers to increases in severity and severity of punishment coupled with social services and community mobilization, a strategy that has been critiqued for trying to make law-and-order policies appear more humane without solving the root causes].  The council is trying to make a bargain, provide some resources now in exchange for phasing those camps out of existence.  The problem is that the camping ban will almost certainly happen before the provision of services.

Q: What was the public debate like?

A: The decoupling of the forensics labs passed unanimously [ed. The Austin City Council voted to move all of the forensics research out of the hands of the Austin Police Department and into a third party laboratory]; there was the the HEAL initiative (8-3 in favor) with only Greg Casar (district 4), Vanessa Fuentes (District 2), and Natasha Harper-Madison (district 1) voting against; and the acquisition of the N. Austin hotel which passed almost unanimously.  In the morning there was testimony on all three questions, and there were a lot of people who spoke out against the HEAL initiative and in favor of the hotel acquisition driven by the organizing efforts of activists.  In the afternoon, the debate was only on the acquisition of the hotel, and that debate was more pitched, because there was a concerted call in from owners of small businesses and their immediate families to talk about either a lack of consultation and respect or about law-and-order questions, especially safety, and the resources that would be taken away from Austin residents. There was a fear that homeless people would run roughshod over their neighborhoods.  Some of these are businessowners in industries that have been affected by COVID, but also a group of people who are conservative homeowners worrying about property values about their right to control their neighborhoods.  The activists were great, in that people whom we reached out to were willing to come out and were enthusiastic about doing something to make a difference.  

Q: Tell me about Save Austin Now (SAN).

A: SAN is basically an operation of Matt Mackowiak (chair of Travis County Republican Party) and Kent Casaday (elected president of the Austin Police Association) or it’s a movement of the members.  Koviak and Casaday want the mobilization of people who would otherwise not get involved in city politics (because Austin is a one-party city) while driving wedges in the suburban areas, and camping/homelessness is one of those wedge issues.  Their social base includes groups like SAFE Horns (a University of Texas at Austin student group) and neighborhood associations or HOAs.  There is a sense that the city is changing and that the identity of Austin is changing and homelessness is more visible.  The decriminalization of camping moved people from the outskirts of the city to the center.  When it had been criminalized, homeless folks moved to the suburbs where it was easier to hide, but with decriminalization they were able to move back to the center of the city.  The media cycle about homelessness is more intense, homelessness is more visible as people come into and out of downtown.  

Q: What has been the relationship between the Black Lives Matter protests and the activism around homelessness?

A: The number of people willing to take action is much greater than it was before.  Asking people to get involved is much easier than it has ever been.  There is potentially some polarization around identity issues.  Anti-homeless legislation has in the past been bipartisan with the humane laws actually being passed by Republicans or religious motivated politicians.  In the Trump years, though, a much higher level of polarization seemed to happen which tapped into fears of invasion of cities by outsiders, immigrants, criminals.  So people who are really opposed to humane laws towards homeless people also seem to believe that homeless people are bussed in from some other city.  This is all the more bizarre since almost every city has an increase in their homeless population.

Q: What do you think about the conflict between state and city leaders?

A: It’s primarily about asserting identity and making security a big issue.  In my mind, it plays a similar role to immigration scares: its about the construction of an “other” and imagining a public safety threat.  I think of it as a strategy for mobilizing and maintaining an active base.  The problem is that the governor doesn’t have the money to put the boots on the ground to police homelessness permanently.  There may be occasional events where the state could do sweeps of the city, but a permanent force is unlikely.  It’s primarily a stunt, like taking over APD, or taking away tax revenue.  The Governor wants to play hardball but doesn’t really have the resources to do it.

Q: What do you think happens next?

A: The main thing is that the stakes are high: a referendum, a law at the legislature, would have a chilling effect on BLM activism.  The city faces pressure from activists to do things about the cops, but now there is a counter-pressure from the state to do the opposite.  It makes the fight much more pitched.   There will be a GOTV plan (about the referendum) to be involved in.  A lot of the criminal justice activist groups need help people getting involved (BLM, AJC, DSA).  We don’t have an ongoing national campaign to help mobilize people or that activists could automatically plug into, and we need to get people involved.

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