On January 1, 2013, House the Homeless (HTH) held its 13th annual Thermal Underwear Giveaway Party. While there are between 4,000 and 6,000 people experiencing homelessness in the Austin Metropolitan area, there are only 607 emergency shelter beds for every man, woman, and child. This means that literally thousands of people will find themselves left out in the cold again this winter.
One of our goals is to reduce the number of names read in November at the House the Homeless Annual Memorial Service (146 names of people who died in poverty were read this year). To that end, HTH outfits all takers with hats, gloves, socks, rain ponchos, scarves, and life-saving thermal underwear. Each year at this event, we invite participants to complete a survey that reflects upon their condition of homelessness.
This year, our focus is on the civil rights of people experiencing homelessness. Volunteers of HTH provided a 17-question survey. The survey team was led by Robbin Polter who interacts on a daily basis with people experiencing homelessness.
House the Homeless is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization made up of homeless and formerly homeless persons and those wishing to end homelessness as it exists today. Established in 1989, we believe that the best way to respond to homelessness is by involving those immediately suffering its condition. Rather than make assumptions about that condition, we strive to hear what people have to say about their situation and involve them in creating and pursing viable options. Below is an excerpt.
Richard R. Troxell
A little over 630 people attended the event. Of those attendees, 208 completed the survey, or about one-third.
1. Completing the survey, 170 respondents were male and 47 were female. This would indicate that a greater percentage of women than men participated in completing the forms as past surveys place the female population at between 10-15% of the overall homeless population in Austin.
2. The average age of all respondents taking the survey is 45.
3. Responding were 33 veterans and 175 non-veterans (veterans comprised 18% of the total respondents.) A past HTH survey of 600+ people placed homeless veterans at 28% in Austin. Nationally, the percentage, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, is 33% of the overall homeless population.
4. 74 people, or 36%, said that they had been hurt or abused for being homeless. The nature of what constitutes “abuse” was not specified.
5. Specifically, 28, or 13%, said that they had been sexually assaulted while experiencing homelessness.
6. Only 8%, or 16 people, reported the sexual assault to the authorities.
7. Only half of those reporting the assaults, or 8, said that the actions of the authorities satisfied them.
8. Without asking the respondents’ gender, we learned that 25 people, or an overall 12% of the respondents, took a partner in order to avoid sexual harassment.
9. Without stating the specific nature of denial, 56 people, or 27% of respondents, reported having been turned down for housing due to their condition of being homeless. Circumstances are unknown.
10. Of the 208 total respondents, 95 people, or 46%, said a police officer had given them a ticket for sitting or lying down even though the individual had told the police officer they were disabled or too sick to move.
A previous HTH survey indicated that 48% of the people surveyed then were so disabled that they could not work. This shows consistency across the samplings.
Sadly, this question was posed more than one year after HTH had successfully worked with Austin City Council Members to bring the No Sit/ No Lie Ordinance in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. This response suggests that enactment of the changes has yet to reach its fullest potential.
11. An overwhelming 64% of people reported having been told to “move on” by police without first having been given a reason or an opportunity to comment. This indicates that not all peace officers have fully embraced the tenets of the Americans with Disabilities Act and determined the underlying cause behind the individual sitting or lying down before responding to the situation.
12. Specifically, 18%, or 37 people, said that, as a disabled person, they were denied a 30-minute warning period before they were ticketed for sitting or lying down.
13. While solicited to come to the downtown area to apply for services, 51% (more than half ), reported that they had been turned away from either the ARCH or the downtown Salvation Army due to lack of room.
14. Having been turned away for shelter, and having explained this to the police, 66, or 32% of the survey respondents, still received a ticket for either sleeping or camping. This has been ruled unconstitutional in Miami, Florida, based on the “necessity” defense.
15. 68 people, or 33%, stated that they had their ID taken by a police officer and not returned. Loss of identification can be a costly and time-consuming replacement event. While this may or may not be an intentional act, the frequency of occurrence would seem to be cause for concern.
16. 77 people, or 37% of those surveyed, had their belongings taken or destroyed by police without being given a receipt or contact person to see about retrieving their belongs. Again, such action in the Miami-Dade, Florida, courts has resulted in settlements that favor the injured parties at considerable/needless cost to the municipality.
17. 98, or 47% of the survey respondents, have been given a ticket with a court date only to show up on that date and be told to return sometime in the future either because the accusing officer did not show up and/or because the ticket had not yet been processed in the system.
HTH has been told this is a regularly occurring event with multiple returns per ticket. Note that if at any time, the person experiencing homelessness fails to report on the assigned/reassigned date, the ticket “goes to warrant” and the individual becomes subject to arrest and jail time. A class “C” misdemeanor (e.g., no camping ticket) is a criminal offense and serves to be one a more barrier to housing, employment, and escaping homelessness.
Image by roboppy (Robyn Lee).